How to Disagree Well: Rule 1: Listen Fairly
Recently I posted a short blog entry summing up four rules for how best to share opinions and disagree with other opinions in a positive, constructive way. I said that I didn't in that entry want to get wordy (one of the rules is about brevity, after all), but I do want to back up my views on these rules. So over the coming weeks or months () I will be doing four entries specifically expanding on the reasons for each of the rules.
The four rules are:
How to Disagree Well
1 Listen fairly
2 Avoid negative labels
3 Be concise
4 Speak your mind
Today I'll look at Rule 1.
Important points are bolded for optional skimming.
Listening fairly seems like such an obvious thing -- but I see so often in debates/discussions that people don't really, truly make sure they're understanding the other person's words for what they meant. They often waste a lot of time and words arguing about it, but in the end it turns out they both already agree anyways, they simply weren't paying enough attention to understand that.
We also tend to enter discussions with the idea that we want to communicate our point of view so everybody else understands it, because we feel it's very important -- because it is, after all, our view.
But we often tend to forget the importance of understanding where the other person is coming from too, giving them the same honor we expect of others. Different people aren't naturally identical in their talents, focuses, tastes, experiences, etc. So often I see people assuming everybody else has the same starting point of them, smacking their heads against a wall when if they put themselves in the other person's shoes, they would have no trouble communicating.
A worse mistake is to realize the other person is different, but sound judgemental, or even consciously believe they're "worse" than you because they're not the same.
It's the age old mistake of discriminating against the different -- but it can apply to more than just the few things society tells us about like race or gender. It can apply even to specific opinions.
That's not to say that different opinions are necessarily right -- yes, opinions CAN be wrong -- but I find it's much more likely that you'll convince someone to change their mind if they don't feel you're insulting them for having their own opinion. And maybe you'll discover it's more of a taste thing, so they're actually right to look at the world their way, for themselves.
Judgementalism is also often wrong because we simply don't know everything.
We may think we know that someone is "worse" than us because they don't have something we have, like knowledge of something, etc. And in some cases, maybe that's true. But I've seen countless situations where the judgemental person is actually the ignorant one, and by being judgemental, they cut themselves off from finding out what the other person knows. Also often we assume they are doing something wrong just because it isn't what we would do, without realizing that other people with their own talents, actually have a duty to use their own talents in their own best ways, not to try to mimic someone else whose talents they don't have.
Have you ever heard the figure of speech, "I don't understand" used while condemning someone?
It's pretty common in today's society, and you've probably used it yourself. I would submit that it's more than just a figure of speech, though, and it may indicate a very bad mindset. That if you don't understand someone, you have the right to condemn them. Think about it -- shouldn't it be the other way around? If you really don't understand, then how can you dare to use a judgemental tone?
(And again, you can never be totally certain you understand, and judgementalism is IMO always wrong, but that's another debate.)
I think that figure of speech started out with good intentions -- "I disagree with you but I don't understand your opinion fully so I can't be confident of this." In that tone, it can be conciliatory, but so often people don't at all mean it in kindness.
Again, this is not to say others can't be wrong, or be failing to listen fairly to you. Certainly we can all make mistakes.
But before we can really "judge", we need to be careful about making sure we understand the other person.
In the vast majority of cases, I find there to be no serious disagreement in the end when this is done. And when there is, both sides understand the other far better, and walk away with the experience being much more pleasant, thus more likely for both to change their minds to the truth, whatever it is.
Another thing is that, if you're not a good listener, people are going to pick up on that, and avoid telling you things, even things you might need to know or that might make you happier or whatever.
I know a lot of people like that, and they simply go through life completely unaware of a sort of sub-realm to reality, full of beneficial things, serious things, sad things, happy things, interesting things, etc. all because they are really bad at listening. It's often like watching Muggles from Harry Potter -- and yes, it's often laughable at their expense. Not that making fun of people is good or anything, but sometimes it's just impossible not to laugh lol. (It's also often very sad...) If you don't listen well, you may find that's you.
But if you simply listen, people tell you all kinds of things naturally, usually with no hesitation, and you'll find a whole 'nother vivid world underneath the blurry fog of the bland one the "bad listeners" see.
Now what do I mean by fairly?
Well, it's hard to pin that down. I think a big part of it is, if you have even the slightest doubt as to whether you actually understood what they meant, don't get huffy, don't go all "are you saying I'm evil??!?" or the like. Simply remain calm and friendly and ask them if they could explain more clearly what they meant. If they don't respond, think objectively about what they probably really did mean -- continue to avoid the temptation just to assume the worst (or the best for that matter; be realistic).
Reacting to uncertainty with paranoia, in most situations of conversation (especially in person where anger can lead to fists, or on websites like this where flaming gets you banned ), usually just knocks the whole debate off-balance, so you can never recover the atmosphere of calm and friendly discussion you had earlier. And it's usually based on nothing substantial, but the other person then gets miffed that you dared to accuse them of saying such a thing, and now both of you are riled and not in a mood to work together anymore.
Is it a fair concern that they MIGHT have meant to insult you? Sure, but it's best to keep it to yourself. Because if it isn't true, reacting with paranoia kinda makes the accusation true later to some extent. (More about this under Rule 2 later.)
Fairly also means you extend to them the same rights you claim for yourself.
Most novices at conversation enter with the intent of convincing others of their own point of view, for example, yet they contradict themselves by also going in with the stubborn idea of refusing to be convinced of others' points of view, even if the others show that they should be convinced.
Well, if you aren't going to listen, don't expect anyone else to either.
That doesn't mean you flipflip like a leaf everytime somebody seems to show proof that they're right. Often in debates we don't know the right things to say to defend our point of view, so we might seem like the "loser", but later we'll realize what we should have said. So don't just go "oh I was wrong" at every opportunity.
Still, consider their reasoning. Don't ignore it. Think it through.
If you're truly doing that fairly, you'll probably know it.
Perhaps the coolest benefit to listening fairly is that often you will subconsciously motivate the other person to actually make your argument for you!
I have had the awesome experience of this many times, especially recently as I've tried harder to listen. I will be trying to convince someone of a point they originally seemed to miss, but I do it in just the right way so that I don't make the actual point -- I lead them to make it for me. It's hard to explain how to do it exactly, it's more of an intuitive thing, but I have noticed what method never works.
You might assume that the fastest way to get someone to see your point of view is to simply state it outright, give the reasons why, and just in general "speech at them." (Let's call this "Approach A".)
With some people, sure, that works great. And in situations like writing an in-depth blog entry like this, an article, even posts to some extent, that's valid. But what I've often found lately is that with personalities who tend to be more confrontational by nature, that is actually the slowest method.
When they understand right away clearly what your opinion is, they tend to play the role of Mr. Contrarian and take the opposite view -- they might not actually believe what they're saying, but they just can't help it. The urge to debate and disagree is in some personalities very strong (I know because that is how I naturally am; I've always been the one to want to go against the crowd, never with, and I recognize it in many online and in real life too... I think you of whom this is true know who you are ).
But when you focus more on listening to them, asking them to explain what they believe, you basically force them to go on record saying things that you agree with, more times than not.
So the approach of listening first provides more common ground from which you can then extrapolate the truth in the matters that they do go on record disagreeing with. (Whether that truth is on their side or yours is another matter, though, and of course two people can agree about something and both can be wrong.)
More than once I have tried debating the same issue with the very same person, separated over time, but in two different ways.
When I try it as "explain myself clearly first and then listen", they side against Opinion X, but when I try it as "listen to them first and then speak", the very same person will say they believe in and defend Opinion X. Often they seem unaware that they've moved around to saying just what I was arguing for; they do it with that same controntational attitude, so they seemingly think they're disagreeing with me.
But then, once they're on record saying it, I can move in with agreement and explain clearly why they were right to say that. After that, they can't backtrack without clearly contradicting themselves, and most won't.
Unfortunately, the method required to make this work is exactly the wrong method for the vast majority of others, who may misunderstand your initial questioning as actually supporting exactly what you don't agree with.
This is especially difficult in a forum debate like the many that go on here on BZPower -- if Person A sees you using Approach A, it works for them, but if Person B sees it, it "taints the argument" so that you can't try Approach B on them either, and you've basically lost Person B. You'll still win the majority and win overall, but you will fail to convince everybody. This should not happen -- everybody should at all times be willing to fairly consider the truth regardless of the approach to get there, but that is, I guess, simply human nature.
So personally I greatly prefer one-on-one conversations if it's possible. In real life, I rarely speak up in groups of three or more, for this and other reasons. This is especially true on more controversial (read: emotionally charged) discussions, of course. Maybe it can be done, but I haven't yet learned how so yeah.
I should also note that forums (or larger groups in real life) have another great advantage. When you do get the other person to go on record saying something you believe is true, and you can move in with agreement, the social pressure of knowing everybody is watching helps prevent them from trying to wiggle out of it. So in some situations overall I think a public conversation can be best, but not universally.
Often once I do this, I am met with mysterious silence by the 'contrarian' for a while.
This seems to be a good indication they've either consciously or subconsciously realized they contradicted themselves and made your argument for you, meaning you've won that debate, but don't expect them to acknowledge it. Pride can be hard to swallow for any of us, unfortunately; few people seem to have learned the powerful skill of being able to admit they're wrong. If they do, that's a great honor rarely earned, so be sure to let them know you appreciate it!
And don't go assuming you're right just because they fell silent either; it's possible something in Dreaded Real Life came up or whatnot. Absence of an opposing argument being given doesn't prove the original argument true, per se.
Another downside is simply that there seems to be NO quick way to convince people with this mindset.
I've always sorta hoped there was a way to rapidly convince anyone if a truth is well-established enough, and in some areas of life that does seem to hold true. Maybe it is true and I'm just still ignorant of that too, I dunno. But with the more contrarian point of view, convincing them of the truth you know seems like a time-consuming, lengthy process. So for them, the fastest way to convince them seems to be to begin strongly with listening fairly, and hope for this neato switcharound effect.
The upside to this downside, though, is that it seems that over time, it doesn't matter much if a contrarian person has seen you use Approach A (fully explaining) in the distant past.
Whether through forgetfulness, subconscious planting or frog-in-the-pan repetition effect, or just the time it may take to get over prideful stubbornness when proven wrong, I've found that people I worried were lost because they went on record as a contrarian against Approach A seem just as likely to side with Approach B. All it took was time. This is a lot slower than going out of your way to listen and ask them to elaborate, but at least it's good news in the end.
(Even I have caught myself taking a long time to come around on things, heh, which I suppose shouldn't surprise me since I am contrarian by nature. On the other hand, after objective analysis the crowd really does seem to be wrong most of the time. XD So a certain healthy amount of reluctance to "flipflop" may actually be wise. *shrugs*)
And keep in mind Rule 4: Speak your mind.
I'll have a lot more to say on this when I do that entry, but for now it's enough to point out that even if it will take time for them to admit you're right, if you don't tell them your opinion, you'll just be wasting all that time. Best to start early, basically. So don't misunderstand -- I'm NOT saying you should keep any part of your opinion secret or anything, and obviously don't misrepresent yourself. (At least I hope that's obvious. )
What I am saying is that we should try to understand the other person and personalize how we speak to them in ways that are best for them, respecting their individuality.
Now, all of these approaches have the potential to be abused to support opinions that aren't actually the truth. I like to think that the truth usually wins in the end, but it's a concern worth noting. I think the "fairly" part comes in there. Any abuse of tactics -- supporting a knowingly false opinion -- is not, by defination, fair, so would break this rule.
Finally, the temptation might be to condemn those who require more listening to than others, but I ask instead that we be patient with it and try to understand why it's best to start with listening. After all, as much as I think it unwise and even a bit silly to pretend you believe something you don't just to be contrary, I myself am prone to that temptation. For me, due to basically luck in encountering the right information, it helped me realize we should be focused on finding the truth.
But the opposite way of thinking can lead to that too or can also lead to naivete, and we shouldn't condemn each other for being different. Instead, we should encourage truth-seeking in debate, regardless of personality, and kindness.
And who is to say that there isn't a contrarian in everybody? I don't know yet, but my running theory is that listening first is the wise course of action with everybody. Again, it's not always possible (someone has to speak first, or nothing is spoken; see Rule #4), but it should be our goal.
So it is for that reason that I place listening fairly as Rule #1 -- and I do mean it as Step #1.
Listen... then speak.
Next up I'll look at Rule 2: Avoid negative labels. Comment/question/disagree/etc. here.