This is the fourth 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 | third
I have a friend- let’s call him Ned – who was having a tough time talking with his mother in-law. She liked to discuss politics but they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Usually, Ned just sat there listening, biting his tongue, hoping that he could exit the conversations quickly. Occasionally he would express his own opinions and had come dangerously close to starting a yelling match. Now, he had an upcoming family camping trip with his parents-in-law, and he was worried about the outcome. How could he keep his cool the whole time? As Ned and I discussed how he could handle this trip, we realized that he had some unanswered – or unasked – questions. How did his mother-in-law come to these conclusions? Why did she feel like she had to talk about them to Ned, even though she knew he disagreed? Was she open to hearing other opinions? We came up with a plan: Ned would lean into the conversation. Dig deeper. Ask questions, without trying to convince. His goal this camping trip was not to get his opinions off his chest or to change anyone’s mind, but simply to get to know his mother-in-law better.
It was hard. He still had a stream of arguments pop into his head, but instead of simply suppressing them he converted them into questions. At the end of the trip he was mentally exhausted, but at least he wasn’t emotionally frustrated or angry, the way he usually was. And he did feel like he had a deeper understanding of his mother-in-law as a person. Knowing where she was coming from, he didn’t feel as irritated at her opinions. As they were saying goodbye, his mother-in-law hugged him and said that she felt they had connected in a way they never had before. Yet all he did was ask her questions.
What Ned learned during this trip was that the first step toward engaging with someone is understanding them. It’s pretty clear that if neither side understands the other, then no connection or progress will be made. Someone has to give in and be the first one who tries to understand – it may as well be you.
As Stephen Covey says in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “first seek to understand, then to be understood.” When we “listen” to other people, we often aren’t actually listening, we’re waiting and planning: waiting for our turn to talk and planning what we’re going to say. We listen just enough to know which bit of information to disagree with.
So instead, make your goal to understand, and your tactic to achieve this goal is to ask questions, and then really listen. A friend of mine likes to use the phrase “get curious,” which is great advice. Actually be curious as to what the other person is thinking. Ask questions and make sure they are honest questions, not attacking or leading questions. A leading question is one with constrained answers, designed more to force someone to admit something than letting them express their own views. These types of questions often start with an assumption, like “Isn’t it true that…” or “Wouldn’t that mean…” Attacking questions may superficially resemble requests for more information, but are really challenges: “What is your proof?” “How can say that?” and “Why do you think that?” I’ve discussed types of aggressive questions before. Leading and attacking questions are aggressive questions, not inviting ones.
Curious questions – which might not technically be questions, but prompts – are gentler, inviting, and open ended. They might sound like: “Tell me how you developed this idea,” “Tell me more about that,” or even simply “That’s really interesting.” Instead of questioning the soundness of the conclusion, they invite discussion about the future: “Tell me how you see that playing out.” I give these examples so you get a sense of it, but don’t worry about following a script, just try to make yourself feel curious, and you will know what to say.
Okay, so now we’ve got our goal to “get curious.” But it’s really hard for us to stay curious because, deep down, we probably still want to convince. So even if we’ve asked some good, honest questions, maybe we are still just waiting to express our own disagreement. How do we know if we’ve been curious enough? Before you shift to being understood (and you can, eventually, I promise) stop and confirm that you understood your partner. There’s a good chance you didn’t hear them correctly the first time, and there wouldn’t be much value in expressing disagreement with an opinion you didn’t even understand. When you think you’ve heard them, confirm it. Here are a couple of phrases you might use:
“If I hear you right, you are saying…”
“It sounds like….”
“I think I get it. You feel that…”
It can help to add just a dash of emotional interpretation, to let them know you are also reading between the lines:
“That sounds really frustrating.”
“It seems like you’re passionate about this.”
“This is really important to you.”
Wouldn’t it feel good to have someone truly listen to you, and then acknowledge you by speaking back your own thoughts and feelings? You’d be grateful that someone took the time to understand you, right? Well, now you’re giving that gift to someone else. This act of generosity feeds your goal, which we talked about last time, which is to build the relationship, more than just winning an argument. Plus, it makes them more pliable for you to change their mind (just kidding). It does, however, go a long way toward making someone want to listen to you, to return the favor.
Give some of these techniques a try. They work with almost any conversation – small talk, dinner table conversations, whatever. You don’t have to wait for a challenging argument. Get curious, and then confirm. It works.
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