There is a better way to talk with those who you don’t see eye-to-eye with, but it will mean taking a bold step.
Our world is a very divided place. So much is in dispute. So many have lost faith in institutions, be they government (well, that is no great surprise), science (for example, a changing climate) or health (for example, vaccination). Thanks to social media, our public discourse is toxic: full of trolling, doxxing, virtue signalling, safe spaces, triggering, bullying, shaming, cancel culture, censorship, deplatforming, fact checking every second word — have I left anything out? Suffice to say, it’s shouty and madhouse as all get out. Is it any wonder more of us are tuning out. I don’t engage in any of it. It’s thoroughly exhausting and ultimately unhealthy — people take their lives over it.
I do do my blog and I write for World Half Full, which is all good news. Helps keep me positive. I quite like debate and discussion, but it is getting harder and harder to find the respectful kind. If you belong in one camp, you don’t talk to the other, apart from screaming insults at each other. There has to be a better way. And there is.
Back in the 1980s, I learnt co-counselling and while it’s a useful tool for counselling, it also offers a way to view all kinds of relationships, personal to group to global. At Least One Hundred Principles of Love is based on it. Worth a read. I credit it with helping me develop an approach to argument and debate. It also guides me when I do numerology readings.
I’m not always successful keeping to those principles, though. I can get drawn in, even when I get a sense it's not going to end well. It’s so easy to have too much skin in the game, too much invested in a cherished point of view. It is very difficult to be unattached all the time and on every subject, during every conversation. But I'm getting better at it. So, I thought I’d share some tips I employ when I’m in discussion.
1. Assume people are ‘good’
We all have experiences that have shaped our worldview and we hold them for reasons that make sense to us. Just because you can’t see where someone is coming from, don’t assume they must be stupid, crazy, ill-informed, uneducated, wilfully ignorant, a conspiracy theorist or some other pejorative term. Do that, and you give up on ever influencing or challenging another — or allowing yourself to be influenced or challenged by them. The confirmation bubble will be your home. It is ultimately an isolating place. Dialogue is a two-way street — by definition. Just as it is ultimately pointless being angry at someone because they see the world differently to you. So, assume the person you’re talking with is a good person with good intentions and you are talking because there is something to learn for both of you. Otherwise, don't have the conversation.
2. Ask questions — and not just one
It may seem simple, but this point is so often neglected in communication. And yet, how else can you learn about another’s point of view other than by asking questions. When you ask a question or a series of questions — because it often means asking more than one — you show you are listening. The other person has a chance to explain how they see things and what informs their argument. Right from the outset, you get to see whether their argument holds water for you. The answers to your questions are illuminating. With your questions, your job is to keep the conversation pertinent to the particular point being made. No straying off-topic.
Some years ago, I spent an hour or so watching a debate between a philosopher and a proponent of the theory that the Earth is flat. The flat-earther was attempting to convince the philosopher. The philosopher just asked one question after another, never allowing the flat-earther to stray once he couldn’t sustain a point in his argument, always keeping him on-topic. The philosopher was persistent, but polite. The discussion never became heated. The inability of the flat-earther to make a sustained case was evident. Not by him being called wrong, but by his inability to sustain the argument. Whether it was self-evident to the flat-earther, I can’t say. But I felt sure he would have left with many unanswered questions and much food for thought. It was clear he hadn’t convinced the philosopher.
I learnt a lot from the discussion.
The other thing is unless you know how someone argues, how can you possibly mount your own argument? If there are strengths and weaknesses in the other person’s argument, you will want to know them. And how do you find out about them short of asking? By the same token, they may raise points you had not considered in your argument. Works both ways. When they ask you a question, you will have room to tell them how you see things. So be prepared: have your facts and figures, your data at the ready. This will change the dynamic between you. Gone are the shouting and name-calling, replaced by respect.
3. Remain relaxed
This is easier to do in person: either face-to-face or voice-to-voice. When you are both asking questions and giving space for the other to reply, things are inevitably more relaxed. You’re getting to know each other better. Online may be trickier, if only because online chat can be nasty. However, you can still do it. With online chat there’s usually a delay between when you read a comment and when you reply, or at least you can delay the reply. Rather than inflame the debate by bashing out some angry words, take a deep breath. Open a text document and type out the angry response, then bin it and write or tweet the more pointed reply in the comment field, and asking, for example, ”Where did you read or hear that?”
4. Argue your case
You may think you’re right. You may also think people should know what you know and that your argument is the truth, so why are they so 'stupid' to think otherwise? You may even think you shouldn’t have to argue your point; it should be obvious. If that were so, we wouldn’t be arguing, would we? There’d be just one worldview.
Those who take a different view to you will, just as you, probably suggest websites to explore and videos to watch. If you want them to read and watch yours, you must be prepared to read or watch theirs. So, you will need to go down some rabbit holes — or at least part way. It may be uncomfortable, frustrating and time-consuming, but you will learn something. You will begin to walk in another person’s shoes for a change. Genuine respect is built on knowing each other's case.
Changing your mindset
Practice this approach enough and you'll find yourself less attached to an argument, less emotionally involved, less drawn to defend territory, less inclined to see the world as black-and-white, less wanting to tightly tie your flag to a particular mast. After all, what if some belief, view or theory turns out be less clear-cut or even wrong? What if the argument turns out to be more nuanced? For instance, science doesn’t hinge on consensus; it only takes one researcher with verifiable proof to challenge a long-held view. In which case, it might just pay off to be comfortable with uncertainty and to not spend all your time in your own confirmation bubble. Like science, shouldn’t we welcome our ideas being tested? Even by those with whom we disagree? Can we sit with possibly being wrong? Or, that the answer is more complex?
I may be dreaming, but . . .