In the past four years, I’ve had debates, discourse, and disagreements about politics, feminism, religion, race, transgenderism, vaccines, and more.
Some were heated and aggressive. Some were fun and fruitful.
I handled myself quite well during some. I sounded like an ass during others.
It doesn’t matter how much we connect or get along with someone else. We’ll never agree with 100% of what they believe. Disagreeing is a natural part of the human experience.
Through my conversational struggles and from the many mistakes I’ve made, I’ve learned three helpful (yet difficult) rules for having more productive disagreements.
Feel free to disagree with them (get it?).
1) Come to terms with this truth: We can never force someone to think, feel, or believe something. They have to get there on their own.
We are not creatures of logic. We make decisions based on emotion and then justify those decisions with logic.
In countless disagreements, I foolishly thought that if I just brought up another point of juicy rationale, I’d crack the other person and they’d see things the way I saw them.
Confirmation bias plagues us all. It will always be easy for us to pick and choose the (supposed) evidence which fits our narrative. We decide what we want to be true and identify with that belief. Then, if someone disagrees with that belief, it feels like they’re disagreeing with who we are as a person.
Yesterday, my friend told me about a heated debate between his two friends regarding the COVID vaccine.
One friend was arguing that the vaccines are probably not safe. He sent a screenshot of a well-sourced article listing the possible negative side effects.
The other friend then went to that same article and screenshotted a paragraph that was conveniently left out: the conclusion which said that the vaccine was ultimately proven to be safe.
I heard this part and thought that would be the shutting of the door to their argument. But the friend merely brushed it off and continued with his disputes.
With the power of the internet, we can find millions of people who agree with every possible opinion known to man. There are people with PhDs who believe the earth is flat. There are intelligent people who think the planet is 6000 years old.
Whether it’s opinions about vaccines or about our favorite athletes…our default is to cling to evidence that supports how we already feel and to shy away from evidence that challenges our beliefs.
Since that’s the case, we cannot ‘logic’ our way through a disagreement.
2) Ask way more questions.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, it’s crucial to understand fully what we’re arguing against. The last thing we want to do is misrepresent someone and challenge ideas they don’t actually hold.
We ask questions to paint a crystal clear picture of what they’re actually thinking.
A strawman is a fallacy in which we argue against the worst possible representation of someone’s point.
Example: “Oh, we need to do something about climate change? So you just want us to stop driving cars and stop having kids, huh?”
No…that’s not what they’re saying. That’s a strawman.
By asking curious and clarifying questions (not leading questions meant to achieve a ‘gotcha’ moment), we’re able to steelman. This is the opposite of a strawman, in which we’re able to articulate someone’s opinions perfectly.
A steelman would have us say: “So just to be clear, you believe…” Then they would say: “Yes.”
That has to be our starting point.
The second reason asking questions is so effective is it demonstrates to the other person that we’re not here to attack them. The more curious we are, the more we show we just want to understand them, the more their guard will drop.
This isn’t a trick. We want everyone involved to lower their guard and feel safe to express themselves without reacting in a defensive manner.
Curious questions make it a conversation, not a debate. This is ideal. Debates have winners and losers. But in great conversations, everybody wins.
The final benefit of asking questions is it adds scrutiny to the conversation, exposing the true strength of the person’s argument.
While this should never be the goal of asking questions, it’s possible that the person “defeats” themselves with their own words. It’s a great way to see if this person has given thought and research into this thing they believe or if they just want to believe this thing.
I recently had a disagreement over the COVID vaccines myself. (To be clear, I’m not super passionate about vaccines. It’s just come up a ton in recent months so it’s fresh on my mind.)
My friend who was super wary of the vaccines was sharing his opinions. I did my best to just ask questions. As I did, I felt that their answers were on shaky ground and I found many holes in their arguments.
There were a lot of “I don’t know’s” and “I don’t remember’s.”
Again, I wasn’t trying to slam dunk this person I have a ton of love for. I just wanted to get a clear picture of their beliefs.
Asking questions is hard, especially when we don’t feel curious at all. Curiosity is tough to fake. But it’s the only way to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.
3) Separate the person from the argument.
We’re not arguing with people; we’re arguing with ideas.
I could go on for hours about how much I hated having Donald Trump as our president. But I’m also super close with people who absolutely loved him.
That doesn’t mean I actually hate these people. It just means I don’t connect with their ideas. We don’t need to agree with someone to hug them or to have a beer with them.
So in a disagreement, it’s powerful to avoid saying things like:
• “Where you’re wrong is…”
• “What you don’t see is…”
• “I disagree with you on…”
With phrases like these, it sounds again like we’re disagreeing with them as a person.
It’s better to say things like:
• “My problem with that perspective is…”
• “That argument to me is…”
• “The way I see things is…”
With phrases like these, we make it apparent that we’re just discussing ideas. It’s not a battle over who’s more righteous, more intelligent, or more sophisticated.
We have to pick our battles. I’ve ruined social events because I thought it was the perfect time to argue against Catholicism.
But we should also feel safe and free enough to express ourselves. This can best be done if we change our goals for disagreement.
Instead of wanting to win, we should want to collaborate and learn.
“Seek out people, books or ideas that contradict your current beliefs and one of two things will happen…A) you will discover that you are wrong or B) you will improve your arguments for your own ideas.”-Mark Manson