Build Agreement (Argue Better 2021 #5)

This is the fifth 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 | fourth

People tell me that I look like my brother. I don’t see it. I never confuse the two of us. Different facial features, a half-inch difference in height, different hairstyles – totally different. Well, maybe, if I consider the entire spectrum of human appearance, we might be put into the same general category. I suppose we do have similar skin tone, similar build, and similar height. When I watch myself on video, I notice that we have the same speech patterns and mannerisms. And there was the time that I saw a picture of myself and thought for a moment that it was him.

Typically when I think of my brother, all I can see are the differences. Because, of course I do. When you grow up with someone, it’s the differences that are important – they make you unique, they stand out, and they are probably the source of all your conflict. We focus on differences and let similarities fade into the background because it’s the differences that can matter the most. An alien species looking at all life on earth would probably find apes and humans indistinguishable, since we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees. But from a human perspective, we need to be able to tell if that life form walking toward us is our Aunt Minnie or a complete stranger, so we need to ignore the shared human-ness and focus on the unique details.

When we are trying to connect with someone who has different beliefs, however, we should resist this natural tendency to highlight the gaps, and focus on what we have in common. By inverting our perspectives we can build a foundation of agreement, and only discuss our differences from that shared understanding.

As we continue this exploration of how to argue better, I’m going to introduce the three most useful tools I’ve found. I’ve been describing the first tool, which is Building Agreement. The other two are: Triangulation and Exploding Labels.

Tool #1: Building Agreement

The goal is to end the conversation feeling like you aren’t as far apart as you thought, even if you don’t totally agree. You might not be able to wipe out the differences, but you can at least make them seem less glaring. The way to do this in an argument is to build agreement. By consciously seeing and stating the similarities between the two viewpoints, we can shift the perspective. Think of agreement as a structure you and your partner are creating together, point by point, brick by brick. Agreement is built, not arrived upon.

How does this work? Well, if you’ve followed the previous advice, you’re at the point where you’ve listened to your partner’s opinion, and you’ve confirmed that you’ve understood. Now you can (finally!) share your opinion. But as you do so, immediately pivot to pointing out where you are alike. Resist the urge to focus on the part that differs.

Try to mentally and verbally put things into an “agree” pile and a “needs work” pile. There is always something to agree on – that a problem exists, the broad outline of a solution, or whose responsibility it is to fix it. If, for example, you’re talking about gun control, after you’ve established that one of you is for greater control and one is opposed to it, point out that you both agree that mass shootings are bad and that American society has a responsibility to prevent them. You might also agree that target shooting as a recreational hobby and sport should be preserved. If neither of you feels that rocket launchers should be sold at sporting goods stores, you probably agree that there should be some limit to the ability to buy weapons, even if you don’t agree where to draw that line. Notice that this approach is fundamentally different than that used by most politicians, whose goal is to create as much distance as possible between themselves and their opponents. They are interested in defeating the competition, not working together.

In the book Getting to Yes (and subsequent follow-ups), authors Roger Fisher and William Ury point out that there is a difference between a person’s interest and their position. The interest is their true goal, while their position is the way they think they will achieve that goal. While two positions may be incompatible, you can often creatively find solutions that satisfy each party’s interest. Similarly, if you and your partner focus on the reasons behind the opinions, you can often find points of agreement. Every difference in the “needs work” pile has some potential agreement in it. If you can’t decide where to draw the line on gun ownership, for example, maybe you can agree on what data might be helpful in making the distinction. Or you can agree on the types of experiments that could shed light on the issue. Even if you just agree that it’s a tough problem without a clear solution, you’ve achieved something!

It may feel repetitive or silly, but keep circling back to what you agree on. Keep growing that “agree” pile. Because our goal is to get close to someone rather than reach a final signed treaty, we have more leeway than professional negotiators. You don’t have to actually research all the data or do those experiments. There’s no contract to be signed at the end, there’s just stepping back and looking at the agreement you’ve built together and feeling that you’ve learned something. You chose this partner because you like them, and the best arguments end with a stronger relationship. Even if your agreement still needs a lot of work, if you still like each other enough to talk about it more, it’s a success.

Next up: Triangulation

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