Talking to People We Disagree With

It is hard to talk to people you disagree with and I’m sure that each year across the United States thousands of Thanksgiving dinners are ruined when someone kicks off a bitter argument with their uncle. Colin Wright gives us a template to use when talking to someone with whom we disagree in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be:

 

“There’s a discussion method I like to use when I’m having a conversation with someone with whom I disagree, but who seems to be open to sharing their thoughts and learning about my opposing view-points. The rules are that neither of us will aim to offend or assume offense is intended by the other, that we primarily ask questions and give answers, focusing on saying why we believe what we do rather than saying why we don’t believe the opposite, and we avoid using labels. If we do use labels at any point, they have to be thoroughly defined.”

 

I think these are terrific rules to use for having a meaningful conversation with someone. The final point, avoiding labels, is really crucial. Our labels are often quite mean without us intending them to be mean. To people we disagree with, our labels are often ways to straw-man their entire set of views or identity (calling someone a Bible-Thumper is a clear example which implies they are unthinkingly fanatical about religion). Forcing yourself and your communication partner to define labels helps you to both draw out new connections you previously had not made. When you have to define what you mean by the labels you offhandedly use, you will become more precise with your thinking and your own arguments will become more clear for people who don’t always use the same label that you so casually use.

 

Wright’s other rules help ensure the disagreement moves in a reasonable direction. When you only say, “I don’t believe XYZ” and don’t offer a different interpretation or understanding of reality, then you are really just causing havoc. It should also be acceptable for you or someone else to say, “I don’t believe XYZ, but I don’t know exactly what would replace it.” Being honest about your doubts and your lack of complete alternatives is a better way to have a conversation than to engage in a back and forth version of “your idea is stupid.”

 

One suggestion I would have for anyone trying to implement Wright’s disagreement model is to be very careful with the types of questions that you ask. It is important not to ask fake “gotcha” questions. I wrote about fake questions in the context of coaching, and it is easy in debate to do the same thing. When you ask a fake question you are not trying to get more information from the other person, but instead trying to make them look dumb. Certainly you will both ask each other questions that reveal areas of thought that are not fully developed, but the key is not to reveal these areas in an attempt to win an argument, but to find the boundary of well thought versus unconsidered possibilities.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.