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If you were in Dare County, North Carolina, in September of 1902 you would have seen two men next to a large piece of machinery yelling at each other. And you probably would have thought that whatever it was these guys were trying to do, it wasn’t going to work out.
How can two people accomplish anything when they’re arguing so much?
But the pair was the Wright brothers. That piece of heavy machinery would become the first airplane. And all that arguing was their secret weapon.
When they were young, their dad, Milton Wright, would raise a subject over dinner and have the boys debate it. Then the two would have to switch sides and argue the other position. It trained them to hone their ideas and express them clearly. They learned to listen and still care about each other as they argued. They learned to disagree productively. And they changed the world.
Now in today’s world I think we can all agree that…
Um, actually, in today’s world it seems we can’t agree on anything. Everyone argues about everything, the news looks like the WWE, and let’s not even mention the civility of social media. Everyone has very strong opinions on what this world needs until you start to think that the only thing this world needs is fewer people who know what this world needs.
You might think what would be best is less conflict. Uh, no. We don’t need fewer disputes. What the research shows is that we need the proper kind. Because conflict, believe it or not, can be a fantastic thing if we do it the right way. This is emotional intelligence where it matters most: during arguments.
Ian Leslie spoke to military interrogators, therapists, hostage negotiators, divorce mediators, and every other type of communication expert you can think of to write “Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.” And he has a lot of answers we need.
Let’s get to it…
The workplace puts a premium on getting along. These days people who are too disagreeable are usually let go faster than you can say “out-of-court settlement.” But all that does is make the conflict stealthy and turn the office into a petri dish for passive aggressiveness.
Studies show the best work cultures try to get issues out in the open. Active debate is what leads to the best brainstorming and top-notch ideas. Best example? Wikipedia. You think that site got so wise and reliable by being conflict-free? Nope, a 2019 study from the University of Chicago showed the exact opposite.
Here’s what Evans discovered: the more polarised the team, the better the quality of the page. Ideologically polarised teams were more competitive – they had more arguments than more homogeneous or ‘moderate’ teams. But their arguments improved the quality of the resulting page.
And love isn’t all that different. In the early years of a relationship, people get much better at reading one another. But then it starts to decline. Why? Once we think we “know” someone we stop paying attention. Frankly, we need a bit of friction to update our mental models and conflict makes you listen. Too little arguing among newlyweds means they’re avoiding problems.
In 2010, American researchers Jim McNulty and Michelle Russell analysed data from two longitudinal studies of relationships. They found that couples who at the beginning of the study engaged in angry rows over relatively trivial problems were less likely to be happy in their relationship four years later. However, couples who were having hostile arguments about deeper problems, such as money or substance abuse, were more likely to feel good about their relationship by the end of the study period.
So conflict is good if we handle it right. But how do we handle it right? The primary thing is keeping the relationship in mind, not just the facts of the argument.
Underneath every disagreement a wordless negotiation over a relationship is taking place. If we don’t settle that, the conversation doesn’t stand a chance.
Putting emotions aside during a dispute is a myth. We can’t. They’re always there. And acknowledging them isn’t enough if we want optimal resolutions. We need to actively cultivate the right kind of feelings.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So how do we get started?
We go into most disputes like it’s a battle to the death, like the other side is actually a lizard person in a human skinsuit. This is over before it begins. You need to separate the person from their position or everything that comes out of your mouth will have the tone of “BURN THE HERETIC!”
How you see them fundamentally affects how you talk to them. If you’ve already decided they are wrong and you’re engaging in a full-court press to change their mind, they’re going to resist every word you say. This is as emotionally intelligent as a punch to the face. Instead, if you listen and focus on hearing them out, you’ll relax and they probably will too.
The experts Ian spoke to spend a lot of energy modeling the behavior they want to see in the other person. This lays the groundwork for a collaboration instead of a knife fight.
Interrogators who made an adversary out of their subject left the room empty-handed; those who made them a partner yielded information.
In the early part of a debate, remember the relationship. This is not two armies’ champions going into combat to determine the victor. You want to be collaborators who have different ideas on how to solve a jigsaw puzzle together. Treat them this way and they’re more likely to treat you that way.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
But what if they come at you with both barrels from the start?
You might want to be nice but then they start off yelling and you think, “Well, if they’re going to be a jerk then I’ll…”
Bad. Wrong. Go no further.
It’s natural to respond in kind, but you’re reacting to their negativity with negativity and guess where that’s gonna lead? John Gottman studied this with romantic couples and found that only 4% of disputes that started off negative were able to turn it around. This is a good way to change your relationship into an episode of a true crime podcast.
Instead of following their bad behavior, endeavor to get them to follow your good behavior. Never in the history of calm down has telling anyone to calm down made someone calm down. If you really believe that’s going to help, you probably believe putting your hands over your eyes makes you invisible.
If someone is entering the conversation emotional, don’t even think about skipping ahead to presenting your case. Emotions that aren’t addressed are a bomb waiting to go off. Listen and acknowledge their feelings.
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
What’s the next way that things usually go wrong, and how do we prevent it?
The second a conversation turns into a struggle for dominance, it fails. If you’re trying to control the other person you might “win” but in the end, you’re both going to lose. The rest of the conversation will just be a slow-motion car crash.
The aspect of rapport that had the greatest result was the exact opposite of trying to control the other person: emphasizing autonomy. When police — who can actually physically control the person they’re talking to — put on the pressure, suspects just shut down. Ironically, when they said, “Look, I can’t make you talk…” suspects were more likely to.
Saying “Resistance is futile!” is futile. Be human, be humble, be open-minded. The biggest problem everyone has these days is they’re too sure they’re right and so they’re incapable of truly listening.
Often the other person feels as if you’re trying to dominate them or prove your superiority in some way (and, let’s face it, often you are). To allay that suspicion, show vulnerability, admit anxiety, confess uncertainty, even – or especially – if you’re in a position of authority. Unilaterally disarming is your best chance of getting others to lower their defences.
Resist the urge to start shooting down what they say. The best evidence for this comes from therapists that deal with people who are clinically paranoid. Yes, they’re seeing coded messages from aliens in their spaghetti but you think telling them they’re nuts is going to help? They’ve been hearing that forever. Immediately pushing back just entrenches them in their beliefs.
They have to see you as being on their side to get anywhere. You don’t need to agree with them, but immediately trying to “set them straight” only backfires.
Gently, over time, Dr Peters tries to reduce the patient’s certainty in their belief. Wherever there is a glimmer of doubt, she works with it, inviting the patient to consider evidence for and against. ‘I wouldn’t say to the patient, “devil worshippers don’t exist”, but I might say, “In this particular instance, when someone pushed you on the bus, I wonder whether it might have been an accident?”’
(To learn how to be an emotionally intelligent parent, click here.)
So how do you get to a point where they feel you’re a collaborator? The answer is going to sound ridiculous…
After they say something, don’t immediately move to counter it. Summarize it to their satisfaction. Say, “So if I’m hearing you right, what you’re saying is…” This proves that you’re listening, that you’re understanding and it takes a lot of potential conflict off the table. People naturally calm down when they feel understood.
The nuclear-powered version of this is to “Steel Man” their argument. To actually make their case better and stronger. Who would do this but someone who was acting in good faith? If you were only trying to “win” you wouldn’t do something that would help their case.
When you help them make their points and really demonstrate you get why they feel their perspective is so important it’s a lot harder for them to accuse you of “not getting it” or for them to hate you.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
All this takes you a long way toward making it a collaboration. But as you’re moving forward, they may get hostile again. How do you restore collaboration once it’s been lost?
You might think that good disputes are more organized and hostile disputes more disorganized. Actually, it’s the opposite.
Peter Coleman, a professor of conflict resolution at Columbia University, says vicious arguments quickly get locked into predictable patterns. Constructive conversations have ups and downs. Destructive conversations operate more on a straight line — a straight line down, that is. I escalate, you escalate, I escalate… and bystanders hide the sharp objects.
Constructive conversations have positive emotions mixed in with negative. Novelty, variation and surprise help you get out of death spirals. When someone starts getting hot under the collar, you don’t want to fire back. You want to break the circuit.
Say something unexpected. Add warmth or humor. Emotional intelligence can sound like something that requires a PhD or 10 years of meditation, but sometimes it’s as simple as making a joke instead of an insult.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
So what’s the attitude you want to take to move the discussion forward?
Disputes often devolve into us just judging whatever they say harshly and firing back. I’d sooner advise invading Russia during wintertime. Instead, suspend judgment and get curious.
Ever talk to someone who has a belief so crazy that it’s not threatening? Like when a small child makes a ridiculous statement. You actually are kind of curious how they came to the bizarre conclusion that “Birds aren’t real.” So rather than shouting them down, you get curious. “Please tell me more about how flat our flat Earth is.” As long as you’re not patronizing (like I just was), this is actually very effective.
Attack their beliefs and they double down. Ask questions and they know you’re paying attention. Being curious implies you don’t have all the answers and often inspires them to hold their beliefs more loosely as well.
(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)
All of this making sense? Cool. But how do you get them to change their mind? Well, you don’t…
The “war” model makes it seem like the debate will end with one side tapping out like in a UFC match. But everyone over the age of 19 knows that rarely happens. Forcefully trying to get someone to change their mind actually makes it less likely that they will.
You don’t change their mind. You lead them to a position where they change their mind.
A therapist can ask about the evidence for it and prompt the patient to consider that maybe, at some level, it doesn’t add up. The crucial point, they say, echoing Miller and Rollnick, is that it should be the patient who articulates the arguments against their delusion. The therapist’s role is to help the patient think about their own thinking.
Listen and reflect. Help them clarify their case. Now they feel understood, you gain information and there is no resistance. Then ask them polite questions that make them think about their position. Done right this can get them to say: “I’m having trouble explaining this thing I thought I understood… Maybe I’m not as sure as I think I am.”
(To learn the best time to do anything, click here.)
Have I convinced you? Have I won? DO YOU CONCEDE?
Kidding, kidding. We’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn how to have emotionally intelligent discussions on the internet…
This is how to have emotionally intelligent disagreements:
So how should you have arguments on the internet? Easy…
Don’t. You may not be aware but the internet was originally designed as a computer network for producing irrational arguments, and it has been successful beyond all expectation. (People have said things so dumb to me on social media that I had to factory reset my phone.) But if you must walk headlong into a Category 5 Twitter Storm, here’s what can help…
Cornell researchers did a 2-year study of the “Change My View” subreddit. That’s a place where people actually pose their beliefs, asking others to try and change their mind. Shockingly, over the course of the study, one-third of posters actually did. 33% might not sound like a lot but it’s better than your record or mine.
The factor most associated with persuasion was not using the same words as the original post. Like restructuring, which we talked about, restating and reframing the person’s position was powerful. Specific examples, facts and statistics, and blending storytelling with hard evidence all contributed to positive change. And, as we discussed, weakness was power: conveying that you weren’t entirely sure yourself was helpful. Oh, and if the person didn’t change their mind in 5 back and forth exchanges, it just wasn’t going to happen. Abandon ship.
But overall, it’s better to avoid internet arguments. (And if you don’t like heated disputes online, might I suggest you never ever ever start a blog?)
Arguments are complex and challenging. But we can make them better with a little emotional intelligence. What’s the biggest takeaway from all this, even if you forget everything else?
There is a golden thread running through all the conversations I had with people in the course of researching and writing this book, and it’s this: you can’t handle disagreement and conflict successfully if you don’t make a truthful human connection. If you have one, then all rules are moot. If you don’t have one, then the techniques and tactics you use are likely to do more harm than good.
Don’t treat disputes like war. It very rarely works. If you forget the other person is a person, and only think about “winning”, I encourage you to consider your priorities because your relationships are going to have the lifespan of a Brita filter.
War is for enemies. Changing minds only happens among collaborators, like friends.
And if you want to end the dispute as friends, perhaps it’s a good idea to handle the dispute like a friend?
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