Agitation vs. Provocation
The most simple definition of agitation is a scientific definition – to shake something up. In other words, to make someone think about something in a new light. One of the most common forms of agitation can be to point out the gap between someone’s values and someone’s actions.
Sometimes family gets under our skin because we know deep down we share a lot of values. That’s why it might feel extra hard when the people who raised us to be good people also sometimes say racist things. That gap is confusing. The question is: what can we do when we see a gap like this? We can agitate!
Agitation is not about being contrarian or shocking. It’s about asking questions or offering stories that get people to think about their experiences in new ways. When you say something to agitate the other person, you’re asking a question or making a point that makes them have to articulate their values and think about their actions.
Provocation is the opposite. When you say something to provoke the other person, you make them defensive, angry, irritated, and end up reaffirming all of their assumptions about what you think.
Confused? Here are some scenarios. Below is an example of an exchange of how NOT to respond to a statement you disagree with (provocation):
Rachel: Global warming is exaggerated. It’s just another thing for mainstream media to rile up people about. If it were really that bad, the weather wouldn’t be as cold as it is. And besides, I care about the environment, but we have troops overseas, hungry people in the streets- there are other things we should be more concerned about! How can you get so worked up over something so far away?
Amna: First of all, that’s not true, global warming- or climate change- is 100% real, science and the vast, vast majority of scientists have been really clear about its impact. And how can you say it’s not urgent with Harvey, and Irma, and all the other destruction we’ve seen this year? You need to educate yourself.
In the example above, Amna responds by attacking Rachel, putting her on the defensive. How can we expect Rachel to want to continue the conversation if that's the way Amna speaks?
Here's that same scenario with a response that agitates and continues the conversation:
Rachel: Global warming is exaggerated. It’s just another thing for mainstream media to rile up people about. If it were really that bad, the weather wouldn’t be as cold as it is. And besides, I care about the environment, but we have troops overseas, hungry people in the streets- there are other things we should be more concerned about!
Amna: I totally understand that out of all the issues in the world, the environment may not feel like the most urgent thing to worry about. For a long time, I actually didn’t care that much about climate change, even though I’m a big Democrat, I recycled and believed in it, but didn’t feel the urgency myself because other issues felt way more important.
I think what changed for me was when my grandmother got sick, and I saw how much illness can take over and destroy your life and the lives of everyone you care about. And when you look at Harvey, Irma, etc. and how quickly people can lose everything, it made me realize that we could be next. I know you care so much about your community, and I see you worry and be invested in your kids’ futures, but their kids will be more likely to get sick because of air pollution, and might be affected by natural disasters, too. I guess the question for me is, if you’re going to invest in your kids’ education, why not also invest in the air they’re going to breathe, too?
In this scenario, Amna acknowledges where Rachel is coming from, tells her own story to show Rachel her side, and then asks a question that makes Rachel think about how to respond next. That's successful agitation.