How to ar­gue pro­duc­tively when feel­ings seem like facts

Times Colonist - - Life - MARC AND CRAIG KIELBURGER Global Voices

We’ve all been there, waist-deep in an ar­gu­ment with a rel­a­tive about Black Lives Mat­ter, im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy or the Me Too move­ment — maybe all three at once.

We con­vince our­selves we’re right. Then our op­po­nent brings up a fact we didn’t ex­pect. For a mo­ment, we doubt our­selves. But in­stead of learn­ing that fact, we dou­ble down on our emo­tions. We still feel right, so the fact must be wrong. This is more than just in­stinct; it’s a phe­nom­e­non called the back­fire ef­fect.

Psy­chol­o­gists have found that when we’re con­fronted with in­for­ma­tion that con­tra­dicts our strong­est be­liefs, we start to be­lieve even harder. The back­fire ef­fect could ex­plain why we get ir­ra­tional when faced with a sound ar­gu­ment. We’re scared we’ll have to re­cal­i­brate our feel­ings around facts. We might even come to — gasp — re­spect our op­po­nent’s view­point.

In a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate where ev­ery ar­gu­ment feels like a bat­tle­ground for larger ide­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ments, that’s a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect. It’s time we got back to ar­gu­ing in good faith.

Let’s ac­cept the pos­si­bil­ity that we could be wrong, or at the very least, that we have some­thing to learn. And, we should re­think why we ar­gue. Are we try­ing to de­feat our op­po­nent or per­suade them? Are we will­ing to be per­suaded in turn?

The Red­dit com­mu­nity /r/change­myview is fos­ter­ing pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions in the birth­place of angry ar­gu­ments: the in­ter­net. It was founded on a few sim­ple rules: Don’t be rude, be open minded.

The group’s 650,000 par­tic­i­pants dis­cuss top­ics as di­verse as taxes, the phi­los­o­phy of Star Wars, dig­i­tal pri­vacy, first-past­the-post elec­tions in Canada and marsh­mal­lows ver­sus whipped cream as the ul­ti­mate hot choco­late top­per. Users award “delta” points when some­one changes their mind.

One of the top dis­cus­sions in 2018 was “The big­gest prob­lem with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is view­ing peo­ple that we dis­agree with as ‘the en­emy.’ ”

We could all learn from this in real life. The next time you find your­self in a de­bate with your neigh­bour about the hous­ing cri­sis, take a step back and try a new ap­proach. Ask them what they think most peo­ple mis­un­der­stand about their per­spec­tive. This will help you dis­cuss their ac­tual stance, and not the straw man you have been de­bat­ing in your head.

See if you can es­tab­lish com­mon ground, sug­gests psy­chi­a­trist Karin Tamerius, who cre­ated a chat bot sim­u­la­tor for ar­gu­ing with your angry un­cle. High­light the points you agree on be­fore you ex­plain your side.

If you catch your­self get­ting de­fen­sive or you need time to fact-check, take a breath and ad­mit you have more read­ing to do. Come back to the con­ver­sa­tion later with bet­ter facts and a calmer head. Abra­ham Lin­coln fa­mously wrote angry let­ters, but then stuck them in his desk for a day to give him­self time to calm down be­fore send­ing them. (He would have done well on Red­dit.)

If you do man­age to dis­prove your op­po­nent, don’t gloat. You’re only en­cour­ag­ing the back­fire ef­fect. In­stead, thank them for con­sid­er­ing your side.

We all have more to of­fer each other when we ar­gue. It starts with be­ing open to the pos­si­bil­ity that we’re wrong. Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE move­ment, which in­cludes WE Char­ity ME to WE So­cial En­ter­prise and WE Day. For more dis­patches from WE, check out WE Sto­ries.

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