You’ve probably experienced it before: someone holds an opinion that’s fundamentally incompatible with the way you see the world, and everything they say sounds like utter lunacy. The conversation fails to make any meaningful progress and eventually decays into frustration. If the conversation takes place online, as so many conversations with emotional valence seem to do, it likely decays far past frustration into vitriol and outrage.
Whether it’s the existence of free will or a higher power, the scientific evidence of vaccines or natural selection, or the moral and societal implications of an open border or strict gun control, some gaps in conversation seem truly impassable. How can we have a productive, meaningful conversation with someone whose worldviews seem incomprehensible and indefensible to us? It may not be as impossible as it seems. Here are five steps to follow that will make your conversations more constructive:
1. Employ empathy
Remember that you’re speaking with another human being. This task is much simpler in person than online, but it’s a valuable tool even in a virtual conversation. The text-filled computer screens between your eyes and the eyes of your interlocutor seem to create an environment where empathy is unreachable, like road-rage on a cyber highway. Try to remind yourself that the person with whom you’re speaking is a person; their life experiences may be different enough from yours that their worldview seems alien, but they likely feel the same way about yours.
Perhaps the surest way to destroy all hope of a healthy conversation is to attack the other person’s goodness or intelligence. You may feel that to believe what they believe is a moral or intellectual failing, but if you don’t value the other person’s humanity, you will not be motivated to help them reach the truth.
2. “Steel man” the other argument
You’ve heard of the “straw man.” You misrepresent the structure of an argument and dismantle its weakened form, then smugly pat yourself on the back. It feels vindicating, but it can only kill the conversation.
Instead of creating a straw man of the opposing argument to dismantle, try to create a “steel man,” a term of growing popularity from an unattributed source that describes the process of reasoning against the most charitable interpretation of an argument. Summarize the argument in a way which your conversational partner will not only agree with but enthusiastically endorse. If you can’t do this, you don’t understand their argument, and the conversation can’t progress productively until you do. Bonus points if you can present their argument more convincingly than they could, but remember: they must endorse your altered version. This is the steel man version of their argument, and it’s the only version worth engaging.
Here’s an example of employing the steel man argument:
Person A: “Scientists used to believe a lot of things that we now know are wrong, so I don’t think it’s wise to put total faith in scientific consensus.”
Person B: “Right, so, I think you’re referring to the fact that scientists used to believe the earth was the center of the solar system, or that space was an aether rather than a vacuum, or that all combustible bodies contained a substance called ‘phlogiston.’ Would you say it’s accurate that you suspect that current scientific theories could be misguided in the same way?”
Person A: “Yeah, definitely. They really believed that stuff back then, just like now we’re so certain of our current theories. We don’t even know what we could be missing.”
Person B: “I totally get that, and I do think that a dose of skepticism is healthy. There’s a fundamental difference between those early scientific theories and many of the current ones, though, and that difference is in the testing of the theory’s predictions. Take Newtonian mechanics, for example. Within the domain of classical physics, it will never be invalidated, no matter what else physicists learn about reality. We know that Newtonian mechanics break down at the level of elementary particles, where quantum mechanics comes into play, but the predictions made by this theory have been tested and verified enough times that it’s safe to say it will always be applicable for things like space travel. I mean, they used these mechanics to get to the moon. You can’t say the same thing about aether or phlogiston.”
3. Avoid the zero-sum debate
Debates may have winners, but conversations don’t. The goal should always be to find the truth yourself, not to sway another person’s opinion to fall in line with your own. While there is usually a tacit assumption underlying any conversation that you believe your argument is true and want the other person to change their belief, browbeating them into submission is counterproductive. The likelihood that someone will revise their belief mid-conversation is very low, so you shouldn’t aim to hear anything of the sort come out of their mouth.
Engage with their points, present your own arguments clearly, and keep things polite. If there’s any chance of enlightening someone, it’s in the aftermath of a civil conversation where that chance will be realized. Don’t forget to consider their arguments in the clarity of hindsight as well; your own beliefs may need an update.
4. Create an intellectual sandbox
Some of the beliefs we hold are so central to our identity that to even consider an opposing view feels like self-betrayal. That’s natural. It’s also crippling to intellectual honesty. Creating a virtual sandbox within your own mind, a place to try out and inspect new beliefs without adopting them into your worldview, can be immensely valuable.
Nothing is too immoral or indefensible for your sandbox. If you can play with Jihadism or Nazism in this insulated intellectual space, you may learn something valuable about how otherwise-psychologically-normal people can come to adopt such abhorrent worldviews. While it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself sitting down in a civil discourse with a Nazi or Jihadist, your well-practiced sandbox should be able to accommodate any argument that you encounter during a conversation. Play with the argument inside your sandbox, inspect it for logical fallacies, and try not to let your gut reactions derail your investigation of the truth.
Your own beliefs should probably spend some time in the sandbox, too. It’s difficult to put something with a high emotional valence into an insulated space for an objective look, but it’s a practice that can strengthen your reasons for holding those beliefs.
5. Know when to walk away
Tension is a natural and inevitable part of discourse. When it’s tempered with civility, that tension is healthy. It’s what enables intellectual progress, and it shouldn’t be feared or avoided. There is a point where that tension becomes unhealthy, however, and personal attacks are where the line should be drawn. If a conversation decays into an exchange of insults, it’s time to cut your losses. Another indicator that it’s time to end or change the conversation is when you encounter the same fundamental disagreement repeatedly. If the conversation hits the same roadblock several times, it may be prudent to end it or move on to another topic for a while. Know yourself, watch your temper, and don’t be afraid of the tension of disagreement.
When civil conversation fails to an extreme degree, physical force is all that remains. Conversation is the omni-tool which can construct bridges to span gaps in human understanding. It is the mechanism by which culture progresses. The power of sharing information and collaborating with others is not something that should be wielded lightly; we should respect the importance of this ability. We must approach our conversations with a sense of humility and responsibility.
Article by Zachary Mayne, former Army Ranger and currently attending university in Colorado.
Featured image courtesy of Adobe Stock.