This is the third in a series called “Argue Better 2021” about how we can improve how we argue, discuss, and engage with each other. If you missed the previous entries, you can find them here: first second
Some readers wrote to me after the last post saying that they’ve tried to connect with people, but it hasn’t worked. One reader reported talking to someone who wasn’t interested in listening or discussing, only attacking. Another told me that their friend had gone silent after the election, perhaps out of bitterness or fear of disagreement. Sometimes avoidance is preferable to discord.
There’s no method that will allow you to connect with anyone. So if you’re just getting started, it’s important to begin with an achievable goal and to pick the right person to try to “argue” with. Disagreeing is tough, especially when it comes to deeply held beliefs or emotional topics. Set yourself up for success by choosing someone you’ve got a shot of connecting with – don’t pick the most challenging person or the most challenging topic. Achieve small victories and build from that.
I recommend that you choose an arguing/discussing partner with whom you have an ongoing relationship. Notice that I used the term “partner” not “audience,” “adversary,” or “target.” Arguments and discussions are mutual tasks, like playing catch or dancing. Things you do with people not at people.
The key idea is to make sure the relationship is more important than winning the argument. They don’t have be your closest friend or relative, just someone that you can’t or wouldn’t want to scream at and walk away. This means don’t choose that friend-of-a-friend on Facebook, or the random man that steps up to your restaurant table to critique the contents your private conversation he’s been eavesdropping on (true story). There’s not much to be gained in these interactions.
Choose someone who means something to you. Someone whose opinion you respect or at least value. Someone you like. After all, have you had your mind changed or even successfully challenged by someone you don’t care about? Changing your mind is an act of vulnerability and trust. You have to lower your defenses and let someone else in. It requires admitting you might be wrong, which no one likes to do. And since you’re doing this to connect better with people, it may as well be someone whose connection you value.
We all start with good intentions, but these can disappear at the first onslaught of emotions, so it helps to have a method for reminding yourself that the relationship is more important than the argument. I, for one, need to remind myself of this a lot. I can get very deep into these discussions, and lose sight of the fact that the conversation is veering out of control. One trick that I’ve found useful (when I remember to use it) is this: when you feel yourself getting triggered, pause, take a breath, look at the other person and think “I can’t believe how much I like you. I really like ___” and then pick something you like about them. Try to fill that blank with something really specific; it’s hard to be rude to someone after thinking about how you admire their devotion to their grandmother, the way they tell a joke, or whatever else.
And remember why you are embarking on this journey in the first place – to get closer to people. It should be fun, or at least positive. If you pick the right person, then the next step will be easier: first seek to understand, then to be understood.*
*I can’t phrase this any better than Steven Covey is his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
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