Evolving with Nita Jain
Evolving with Nita Jain: Health | Science | Self-Development
4 Tips to Help You Engage in More Productive Disagreements

4 Tips to Help You Engage in More Productive Disagreements

#3. When in doubt, spell it out.

Last week, we discussed how techniques such as affect labeling and physiological sigh can help us to stay calm when triggered and get into a better state of mind. But how do we go about the messy business of actually engaging with people who think differently from us?

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote,

Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

Sometimes, getting through to people feels impossible with both sides bolstered by a profligate confidence in their firepower. What should we do if we want to avoid living in an echo chamber but also prefer to avoid confrontation? How can we communicate our viewpoints both effectively and gently?

A Case of Cognitive Dissonance

Imagine two Americans named Marsha and Alexandria. Marsha supports the right to bear arms and believes abortion is equivalent to murder. Alex supports gun regulation and a woman’s right to choose. Which person is more likely to support capital punishment?

Based on the normal distribution of political opinions, most of us would say Marsha is more likely to support capital punishment because of her conservative views. But how do certain political ideologies get grouped together? Why would Marsha support the death penalty if she is pro-life? And why would Alex support individual freedom when it comes to abortion but not gun ownership? How do we explain the cognitive dissonance?

The answer may lie in the factors that govern our decision-making process. We may be more primed to accept certain policy positions depending on our genetics, gender, ethnic background, upbringing, personality, and socioeconomic status. In a 2003 paper, Jost and colleagues from Stanford University argued that personality traits can predict whether someone is more likely to identify as liberal or conservative.

In their meta-analysis, the researchers found that conservatives tend to have a higher need for order, structure, and closure compared to liberals and also rank lower on measures of tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, and openness to experience. In addition, conservatives were more likely to fear threats to social stability and score higher on measures of death anxiety.

Finding Common Ground

Moral Foundations Theory, put forth by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, argues that humans across cultures share a common core of ethical beliefs upon which we build different narratives and identities. How those values are expressed and the relative importance we assign to them can differ, however.

Some people may value adherence to authority above freedom of expression and thereby condemn flag burning as morally reprehensible. Others may place freedom of speech at the top of the moral hierarchy and therefore condone actions that reject patriotism in favor of equality. The five universal moral foundations are:

  1. Harm/care — leads to disapproval of individuals that inflict pain and suffering on others

  2. Fairness/reciprocity — involves issues of equality and justice

  3. Ingroup/loyalty — based on our attachment to groups (such as our family, church, or country) and underlies virtues of patriotism

  4. Authority/respect — tendency to create hierarchical structures of dominance and subordination and appeals to values of leadership, obedience, and tradition

  5. Purity/sanctity — evokes emotions of disgust in response to biological contaminants, such as spoiled food or chewing tobacco, and social contaminants, such as spiritual corruption or hedonism, underlies the notion that the body is a temple

Several studies have shown that liberals and conservatives differ in the relative value they assign to various foundations. Liberals are more likely to prioritize considerations of harm and fairness while conservatives tend to place a higher value on the foundations of ingroup, authority, and purity.

Liberals are likely to deem actions immoral if they cause harm, which likely explains their negative attitudes towards capital punishment and the use of torture on terrorist suspects. The stronger value that conservatives place on ingroup/loyalty is reflected in their attitudes toward illegal immigration.

Returning to the example of Marsha and Alex, how can we find a way to resolve the seemingly contradictory views? If Alex’s opposition to abortion is a function of her commitment to fairness and her position on gun control stems from a hatred of harm, then simultaneously being pro-choice on abortion and anti-choice on gun ownership is not morally inconsistent.

Similarly, Marsha’s sincere belief in the sanctity of life underlies her opposition to abortion, and her position on gun control stems from her belief that each member of a group should be able to defend against outside threats. Understanding the basic moral pillars that underlie our beliefs is a great first step toward communicating more effectively.

If we are to heal the pain and suffering caused by decades of divisive dialogue, we must first acknowledge the common humanity of all parties involved and then begin respectful conversations aimed at understanding. In his TED talk on how not to take things personally, former referee and communications expert Frederik Imbo explains, “If I try to see the intention of the other, I make space for understanding instead of irritation.”

Don’t Take It Personally

How do we stay calm when our personal beliefs are under attack? Looking to missionaries might provide an answer. Missionaries experience a lot of rejection when attempting to spread their message to a wider audience. How do they manage to maintain their composure while being repeatedly rebuffed?

The secret may lie in their attitude towards their beliefs. Missionaries don’t wield their beliefs as weapons but instead happily offer them as gifts. Sharing a gift is an act of joy, even if everyone doesn’t accept it.

How can we use this attitude to have more productive conversations with people who disagree with us? One strategy is loosening our attachment to our beliefs. According to philosophy professor Dale Lugenbehl, personal attachment to beliefs encourages personal competition at the expense of collaborative efforts to find the truth.

The late Buddhist master Thích Nhất Hạnh recommended that we all make the following promise to ourselves: “I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.”

In his talk, Imbo offers yet another approach to help cultivate a sense of non-attachment to our beliefs. He uses the poignant analogy of a crumpled, chewed up, regurgitated 20 Euro note to explain that our value remains the same regardless of how other people treat us. Your value does not depend on external validation. Your worth is inherent irrespective of whether someone else recognizes it.

Do I Make Myself Clear?

Another strategy we can implement is to develop a strong sense of self-awareness. In her book, No One Understands You and What To Do About It, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson says that the gap between how we think we come across and how other people actually perceive us can be substantial.

Most of us suffer from the illusion of transparency, the belief that what we feel, desire, and intend is perfectly clear to others even when we have done very little to effectively communicate our thoughts. Meanwhile, people perceiving us are susceptible to the primacy effect, which means that the information exchanged during early encounters will forever shape our view of a person.

Photo by xkcd

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, economist Daniel Kahneman describes the two systems we use to process information, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 processes information intuitively and automatically and tends to use shortcuts, or heuristics, to draw conclusions without much effort. The primacy effect comes about as the result of the lazy thinking of System 1.

Halvorson points to research showing that children who perform better on the first half of a math test are judged to be smarter than children who perform better on the second half of the test despite identical objective scores. System 2, which is more thoughtful and deliberative, can correct for the shortcomings of System 1 by evaluating whether the initial impressions registered are accurate.

But engaging System 2 in everyday decision-making is an uncommon occurrence. Weighing every potential motivation that a person could possibly have is mentally taxing, so we need to recruit other solutions to solve the problem of perception. Overcommunicating instead of relying on other people’s systems to fill in the blanks would lead to fewer misunderstandings.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

In his book, Why Are We Yelling?, Buster Benson argues that the art of disagreement is something that can be honed with practice in the same way that a consistent workout routine or mindfulness regimen can make us better. According to Benson, practicing deliberately and allowing for forgiveness when we fail is the path forward. We should try to push ourselves a little past our comfort zones with every successive conversation.

To recap, the following tips can help us engage in more productive disagreements:

  1. Find common ground by figuring out which moral value underlies a person’s position.

  2. Don’t take it personally. Loosen your attachment to your beliefs, and listen with the intent to understand.

  3. Counteract the human tendency to jump to conclusions by communicating more clearly. When in doubt, spell it out. Be as obvious as possible.

  4. Practice makes perfect, so keep trying. Even if you initially find yourself discouraged by the difficulty of disagreements, persistence will allow you to eventually reap the benefits!

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate, which means I may receive a small commission from any qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

Evolving with Nita Jain
Evolving with Nita Jain: Health | Science | Self-Development
Whether it's a workout protocol, productivity routine, or mindfulness practice, Nita Jain shares actionable insights designed to help listeners optimize their lives and become their best selves. Topics covered include science, psychology, philosophy, health, fitness, longevity, entrepreneurship, and everything in between. The show aims to be interdisciplinary, encourage forward thinking, and approach subject matter in a balanced way.