5 min read

Disagree without being Disagreeable (Newsletter 065)

Ideas spread and become influential because they win over new adherents. If you want your ideas to gain traction you must expose them to people who do not yet agree with you.
Disagree without being Disagreeable (Newsletter 065)

Greetings friends.

Because I believe continuous improvement principles can aid us in many areas, I am always looking for opportunities to do better. A good indication for such an opportunity is when I've had a setback or failure. My natural instinct is now to say, "Well, that sucked. How can I do better next time?"

Treating a painful experience as an opportunity for learning is useful for multiple reasons. It helps you get over the sting of disappointment, because you hope to learn something new. It keeps you focused on the future and away from dwelling on past mistakes. And you often do learn how to perform better, which helps you get better over time.

This is by way of introducing a change I've noticed in how people interact: people are emotional train wrecks, and many don't know how to have a civil discussion. When it comes to any topic people feel strongly about, rational and reasoned discussion is rare. Emotions drive the rules of engagement and emotions often carry the day.

Why is this hard for me? After all, I know from my psychology studies that humans are ruled more by emotions than reason, and that we all justify our emotional decisions with supposed reasons after the fact. I think it's due to my further education in law and business, and then a couple decades working as a business lawyer. This made me a rationalist to the core.

That means I like to discuss and agree on premises, apply logical reasoning, and explore reasonable conclusions, of which there may be more than one. There are almost always pros and cons, and costs and tradeoffs associated with every proposed solution.

Being a rationalist also means I often change my mind. Maybe I learn new facts, or the other person raises an argument I hadn't considered. Sometimes I take the opposite side of an argument just to make sure I understand it correctly. I try to be only weakly committed to my starting position.

This process worked well not just with like-minded business colleagues, but also with negotiation partners and opposing counsel. It was rare for someone to take a business discussion intensely personally, or to view an exploratory sally as anything other than a discussion.

Thus, I am still struggling with the fact that, increasingly, reasoned discussion is no way to win an argument, and introducing nuance is like bringing a skunk to a garden party. No one wants to see it, and if you try to stick it under their nose they shy away.

If my habitual method of expounding logical positions is ill-suited to discussing issues, I can tell you another method that doesn't work well: what everyone else is doing, namely giving free run to emotions and shouting at each other. Let me explain why, looking at both in-person interactions and those occurring remotely on-line.

In-person interactions appear more civil, and I think they are more civil. This is partly because social conventions still prevent a certain amount of direct hostility. But only in small part. My observation is that face-to-face conversations are more civil primarily because most people avoid controversial topics.

The first few minutes' conversation with a new person represents a kind of exploratory dance. Can I discern from this person's statements whether they are a (fill-in the blank for your appropriate measure): progressive menace, liberal idiot, ultra-MAGA Trump supporter, hard-right conspiracy theorist, semi-fascist, etc. If you detect enemy sentiments, the conversation usually turns to safer, bland, and non-controversial topics. If, however, you hear sentiments similar to your own, you can spend time agreeing with each other and laughing at how clueless supporters of the other party are.

Contrast this with on-line interactions. Although many posts are superficial and unobjectionable, whenever a substantive topic is introduced, there is no tentative probing. The initial volley is more likely to be inflammatory, because people are usually trying to make a point. Also, there's no one to check your inner dialogue, where your every thought is positively genius. Of course, you're right!

The return volleys to your post are either (a) wholly in agreement, confirming your brilliance, or (b) from someone who is apparently attacking everything you stand for and your inherent worth as a person. The proper response to such a challenge is to counterattack. By not immediately agreeing with you, your commenter deserves to be punished, ridiculed, misquoted. Whatever serves to get them to apologize, acquiesce, or go away, and right quick.

When did we get so fragile? Since when does a question or a comment, indeed anything other than slavish agreement, represent an attack on our personal integrity? It could be because the primary purpose of social networks is not to engage in reasoned debate, but to identify like-minded persons.

My mistake seems to be in assuming that people who post ideas are open to discussing those ideas. Rather, people behave as if all they want is reinforcement or silence. In my old world of legal wrangling, silence can be taken as assent. This makes it hard for me to scroll by glaring logical errors. Or even to resist adding another perspective to a topic. Hey, do you think this could lead to unintended consequences? Or, I agree the societal objective is valid, but are there better ways to achieve the desired outcome?

Remember that ideas spread and become influential because they win over new adherents. If you want your ideas to gain traction you must expose them to people who do not yet agree with you. How should you deal with their questions and overcome potential objections?

Here's a tip that is supported by all my learnings in psychology, economics, law, and business: personal insults are remarkably poor persuaders. Insults in an exchange signal failure, not that you're winning.

When I see someone resort to personal insults, I take it to mean their idea cannot withstand criticism. Moreover, you are all but guaranteeing that your counterpart will dismiss what you have to say further. This makes it that much harder to achieve a common understanding.

Disagreement does not have to be disagreeable. When you make an exchange personal, you not only lose the argument, you lose the chance to gain a convert to your idea.

If you find yourself shouting at strangers, stop and ask yourself why. It's unlikely to be changing anyone's mind. And I bet you don't feel better after doing it. If your method is ineffective, and makes you bitter and unhappy to boot, why are you still using it?

I don't expect everyone to be Spock-like in their reasoning. But I'd be happy to see reasonable minds disagree reasonably more often.

Be well.

PS – Alongside learning to disagree with others, it can be extremely useful to learn how to disagree with yourself. That is, if you want to improve the quality of your thinking, one way to do it is to challenge your thinking. This requires us to accept several things: we may not have all relevant information, we may not have considered a problem from every angle, there may be gaps in our thinking, etc. I explore the idea in this week's other post Achieve Better Outcomes by Being Humble. I trust you'll agree it makes for good companion reading.

Achieve Better Outcomes by Being Humble
When we get into the habit of considering what could go wrong before we act, we can improve our odds of future success without having to first personally experience failure.

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