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Disagreeing Better

It is easy to be protected from all other viewpoints than the ones with which we already agree. The internet has made it even easier to live inside our own content bubbles. This is a big problem because in the same way that dealing with challenges makes us better and more resilient, exposure to opposing viewpoints makes us intellectually sharper and more insightful. When we are not exposed to these foreign perspectives, we don’t learn how to relate to the people who hold those perspectives. As a result, our worldview becomes fragile and unable to integrate new or challenging information. It also leads to disconnection from and condemnation of those people and views that we do not agree with – we fear what we don’t know.

Whether it’s about what religion is supreme or what country wins the world cup, disagreement has been part and parcel of the human history. There is nothing new about disagreement in itself. Over many thousands of years humans have learnt that the only way to work through most disagreements is by engaging with opposing views. However in the absence of robust discourse, humans tend to resort to physical violence; just like any other animal as a means of persuading our enemies. Basically if we want to avoid riots and wars, we have to have better conversations. There is a two part solution to the problem which I believe involves first, proactively exposing ourselves to different and even offensive viewpoints similar to the way we expose ourselves to resistance in intensive weight training. And secondly, to engage with these viewpoints in constructive ways.

Here is a short list of tips for constructively handling these viewpoints. It’s is however important to note that these tips should be adapted to the personality of the person in question as well as the situation.

1. Truly Listen

This may seem obvious but it is the fundamentals that’s usually the most effective thing we can do. The best strategy here is to simply pay attention to what the other person is trying to say. This fosters trust and goodwill which are very necessary parts of having a productive conversation. When one or both parties in a conversation don’t feel like they are being heard, it does not promote trust and goodwill. Conversely, when both parties feel as though the other is truly listening to their point without an agenda, it goes a long way in smoothing over rough patches and maintaining an open mind.

2. Restate their Argument

How do you prove you’re listening, by echoing to the other person what they just said. You could even consider setting up a rule for yourself like ‘only state your view after you can restate the other person’s view to their satisfaction’. It could look something like: ‘so if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is xyz….’ That way, if the other party confirms then you have a mutually agreed upon ground to continue the conversation. You could also try to make their point even stronger than they did, instead of attacking the weakest point of their argument. If you restate their argument before your own, you make your argument appear stronger and more credible.

3. Be Honest About What You Don’t Know

Not many people can do this. Be honest about what you don’t know especially when dealing with contentious topics. This way you seem more credible when you assert something you do know. You also disarm people and give them a chance to be more gracious towards you.

4. Assume Other People’s Motives are Just as Noble as Yours

It is easy to dismiss other people opinions as impure and malicious. But it’s much harder to consider that these people as just like us; descent human beings who are just trying to understand reality and navigate it as best as they can. We need to come to terms with the unsettling reality that there are good people with good intentions who want the same things as we do but whose views just happen to conflict with our own. It’s a difficult pill to swallow but one that will improve our attitude towards people especially those with whom we disagree. It’s true that not everyone want the best for us but as long as they are reasonably respectful and honestly trying to make their point, give them the benefit of doubt.

5. Ask Questions

As a general rule, people like to be asked questions. It makes us feel important and respected and valued. Questions like ‘how did you come to that view?’ Or ‘what do you think of people who say xyz..’, or ‘where did you learn that’? You seem to know a lot about that. These kinds of honest and genuine questions go a long way in building rapport. A good strategy here is when you disagree with someone, approach the conversation like you’re just trying to clarify your own thoughts. And in truth this is what you should be doing; trying to clarify your own thoughts. Because when it comes down to it and we have to display our knowledge, we realise that we actually know less about a given topic than we think we do. So why not listen to learn. Often in debate and arguments especially around heated issues, we confuse intense emotions and strong intuitions for knowledge and certainty, so it lets you off the hook to just seek only to clarify your thoughts. So when next you find yourself wanting to counter an opinion or perspective, consider this approach; try asking them for permission. You might say, ‘hey are you open to a different perspective on this?’ And that could open a door that psychologically primes them for a different perspective.

6. Try to See the Humanity in Everyone

Humans are tribal creatures by nature. So the default pattern is to dehumanise those we deem different from us. From physical appearance to as far as views and perspectives. To counterbalance this, we must understand and constantly remind ourselves that people are much more than their beliefs. Our perceived opponents are rarely the one dimensional monsters we perceive them to be. Just because a person has different views from ours doesn’t mean we cancel them as a person. We need to separate a person from his or her views and realise that asides her views they are still a sister, a brother, a coworker, etc. They still have hopes and dreams just like we do. Furthermore shaming people is a terrible strategy in influencing them. In fact it often causes them to dig their heels in further or the behave destructively. Finally when we dismiss others based on one view, we cut ourselves out of others views of theirs that might have in fact been very insightful. Nobody has a monopoly on knowledge.

To sum it all up, true progress is not made by isolating ourselves from opposing perspectives. It is made when we actively engage with those perspectives. By the same token true understand begins when we make a serious attempt to understand where our perceived opponents are coming from. Now there is a downside to exposing yourself to opposing views and that is that it is uncomfortable and destabilising. But there is also a downside to not doing so and that is you’ll never learn anything new because the only time we learn anything new is by exposing ourselves to new information. I’ll end with this quote by Shivesh Ranjan: “a wise person knows that there is something to be learned from everyone.”


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