As many of us enter week four, five, or six of stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever we need interpersonal tools to help us get through our new lives in close quarters. Maybe now’s the moment to practice being noncomplementary.
Psychology professor Christopher J. Hopwood describes complementary behavior as our natural and easy tendency to respond to warmth with warmth or coldness with coldness. If someone’s nice to us, we tend to be nice back to them. If someone tells us they can’t stand to be in the same room with us for one more moment without screaming, our first response is probably not going to be to tell them we love them. But that’s what noncomplementary behavior is—responding to coldness not with coldness, but with warmth.
Obviously, noncomplementary behavior isn’t easy. It’s part of why we admire people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Their practice of nonviolent protest is noncomplementary behavior wedded to social movement tactics. When the police use violence against you, respond with its opposite–nonviolence. That’s not easy or natural, which is why activists have to be trained in nonviolence. They have to practice how to respond in noncomplementary ways.
Noncomplementary behavior definitely isn’t right for every situation. Research suggests that employing noncomplementary behavior too often or in the wrong setting can have negative effects. Always being kind to a perpetually hostile person can quickly turn you into a pushover.
But using this opportunity of forced interaction to work on our noncomplementary skills can have serious benefits.
In healthy relationships, responding to a hurtful remark with kindness can stop a cycle of hostility and anger before it starts, losing the battle in order to win the war.
Here are some tips for incorporating more noncomplementary behavior into our lives now and when we’re free to move around in the world again.
Because complementary behavior is the default for most of us, departing from that path takes some effort. Slowing down our responses is a good life strategy in general and something we have more time than usual for now. Slowing down is especially helpful in curbing our tendencies to meet anger with anger. When your partner snaps at you, or a co-worker ignores your stellar contributions in that Zoom meeting, take a deep breath. Then another. Pay attention to your emotions. The point of non-complementary behavior isn’t to pretend that it doesn’t hurt when people are mean to you. Try to acknowledge your emotions without letting them dictate your behavior. Take your time in formulating a response and you increase the chances of your response being noncomplementary.
Arm yourself with empathy
As inspirational memes are constantly reminding us, we never know what struggles other people are facing. This is especially true now. Practicing noncomplementary behavior requires that we arm ourselves with empathy. Understand that the rude behavior being directed your way has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the unseen battles that person is fighting.
Practicing Metta meditation is one way to get in the habit of leading with empathy. As you go through your day, aim the following mantra at the people you interact with—“May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.” Visualize what it might mean for your neighbor or delivery person or family member to be happy, well, safe, and peaceful. In addition to building up your empathy muscles, Metta meditation has benefits for you, as well. Research suggests it can help with healing, social connection, and increasing self-love.
The Golden Rule
At its most basic level, noncomplementary behavior is another version of the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them to unto you. We’d all like for others to respond to our bad behavior with love and kindness rather than hostility. If we practice noncomplementarity, we increase our chances that our own moments of coldness will be met with warmth.
Make it a habit
We’ve all had lifetimes to practice getting good at complementary behavior. It’s impossible to turn that all around overnight. The only way to get better at noncomplementary behavior is to practice, practice, practice. Like all practice, that will also involve messing up sometimes. But noncomplementary behavior can be aimed at yourself, too. When you mess up, treat yourself with kindness rather than harsh words. Resolve to try again and keep trying because sometimes, the results may just change someone’s life.