Friday, January 8, 2016

How to Win Arguments and Influence People

Hello, election year. I hope you're lovely, but I bet you'll be ugly.

I've been thinking about the way I talk with people about politics, as well as some situations in which I've been hurt by the way people have talked to me. I also just read two articles that had some excellent information about how to present information to a potential "opponent", so I've decided to mash it all up into a post that I hope you will find both insightful and helpful. I think we will all need an extra dose of kindness and patience this election cycle.

"How to 'win' arguments" might be a little misleading. I'm not sure anyone has ever said to me, "hey, you know what? you're right, you win", though I am proud to say that I've been the one to say that once or twice. In fact, when I put one of my previous "soapbox" posts through an analyzer, I was informed that I "can be perceived as critical" (and also that I'm "unlikely to buy healthy foods", lolzzz). This is an unfortunate side-affect of being an extremely honest person and also being right all the time (joking, joking). 

As much as I would love to win an argument once in a while, I don't expect to change people's minds. Especially Jehovah's Witnesses, those are some tough nuts to crack!  

I want to be challenging, not belittling. As E.B. White put it, "the role of a writer is to lift people up, not lower them down" (source). In my own writing and speaking (and when I take in that of others), I find that making an issue black and white is a blind and lazy practice, often reducing another person to their set of political beliefs. It's quite easy to tell someone else that they are wrong or to reiterate my carefully crafted stance. Yet as a consumer of ideas, nothing turns me off more than being called an idiot by association to my political camp. When people take that tone with me, I a) lose respect for them, and b) think to myself, "you don't know me, and you don't care to". 

What's difficult and stretching is to open yourself up to the possibility that you could be wrong about some things and to present your views in such a way that allows other people to put down their shields and at least consider that there is room to tweak their beliefs. 

Sometimes, after someone has taken the time and effort to explain their point of view to me calmly and thoughtfully,  I still disagree with them. But other times, I am brave enough to change my mind. Of course I can't find the reference anymore, but my mom once showed me a quote, "All women, and some great men, change their minds." To adjust your beliefs when given new information is logical, not shameful. There's a word for people who refuse to change in the face of new evidence: pig-headed. 

Most of the time, we stick to the beliefs we already had going into a conversation. But if I'm open to the possibility for change or I  respect the person I'm talking with, I at least come away from a conversation with a better understanding of how the other person's life and experiences and beliefs have led them to the stance they hold. 

The one situation where I feel this mindset breaking down for me is when I think that the other person is simply parroting what their parents/friends/pastor/professor/preferred blogger has said without really thinking about whether they believe what they're hearing or why. I'm guilty of not fully understanding some of the things I repeat sometimes, and because of that, I will be the first to admit that I don't know much about some topics or headlines when people challenge me on them. 

There are some issues about which I feel so strongly that I DO think that anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. But my dad pointed out that the beauty of unique giftings (and in a way, democracy too) is that while I vehemently believe that an open immigration policy is the right reaction to the Syrian war, someone else may believe that military involvement is the key to peace. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and only by people of both opinions pursuing their version of what is right can some combination of probably-both-needed approaches be reached. It may drive us crazy to be challenged by people "getting in our way", but checks and balances, both political and relational, are what keep crazy people or ideas from gaining all the power. Mr. Trump can only do so much damage if the rest of us continue to oppose him. 

When I'm open to LISTENING to other people, sometimes I hear an idea that had never occurred to me that I can test against my core assumptions. For example, I'm a pretty firm believer that the modern political nation of Israel has little to do with the Biblical nation of Israel. Based off that belief, I don't think that modern Israelis have any "right" to the land they're on any more than the  Palestinians do, in part because that land only became modern-day Israel because Europeans carved it up that way post-WWII . 

My sister Annelise believes differently and suggested that maybe God still does have a special nation of Israel and that He used the colonialist aftermath of WWII to make a place for the Israelites, much as He used pagan Biblical nations to shape the Biblical group of Israelites.  I still don't agree with that (I think God's nation of Israel is global, much like what we call the Church, if they are not indeed one and the same), but the idea did get me to concede a possibility that falls outside of a pretty firmly held belief.  

I'm sure that my respect and my affection for my sister had something to do with my willingness to consider something that contradicted my general belief system, but I also take note anytime I hear myself saying, "that never occurred to me before!" There is such a thing as you or I not knowing everything

Now, if I could only have that affect on other people more often... 

One of the articles I was reading had some concrete tactics for how to debunk false information. I think it applies to voicing your opinions publicly, too. 

1. "One way to get around the tendency to retain false information is to tell people not just that something is false, but tell them what is true". 

2. Give the person you're challenging an opportunity to self-affirm their beliefs ahead of time. "Affirm that they’re not idiots, that they're not dumb, that they’re not crazy — [so] that they don't feel attacked. And then try to present the information in a way that’s less conflicting with [their] worldview." In other words, ""please tell me it matters how I feel."

3. "Deliver information by way of a messenger who is consummate with your beliefs". In plain English, "get a liberal to talk to liberals and a conservative to talk to conservatives".

4. Cite the majority: "In general, people are very sensitive to what they perceive to be the majority opinion around them. For example, 97 out of 100 scientists agree on the basic notion of global warming". I do want to note here that if you're wired like I am, being told what the majority thinks may actually push your listener further in to his/her firmly held 3% strong opinion. 

A few extra tools:

I read about another concept I'd never heard about called, "Calling In". It's the gentler twin of "calling out", as in "to call someone out" on something. I'd also never read a live-tweet discussion/transcript, and found the format a little bit cumbersome, so I've just pulled sentences out that I found helpful (there is a lot of great stuff in this discussion, you should read the whole thing if you get a chance!). 

"Calling Out has its place: Against unrelenting repeat offenders. Against malicious opponents. Against real enemies. But when an offense, violence, or ignorance is committed by someone in our communities, someone we call a friend or wish we did, someone who is invested in their allyship, Calling In may be more appropriate....Calling In is also appropriate with an ignorant stranger, with an unknowing other, with anyone who might care to do better."

Calling In, in my own words: if you don't have something nice to say... at least say it gently. 

We generally have three layers of interaction with others: comfort ---> learning/stretching ---> panic. (source)

"Stretch Zone is the only place that learning happens. Here, we are engaged and curious, integrating information and sharing ourselves. Panic Zone is where we are so uncomfortable that we are disengaged, and just trying to survive. Fight and flight, freeze and blame all live here. Calling Out lives here. Indignation lives here. Distancing and demonizing lives here."

I want my political conversations to put both me and the person I'm talking to in the learning zone. I'm CALLING OUT Mr. Trump, but I want to Call In my friends and family who may sympathize with some of his ideas or feel the fears that he is playing on. There are many things to be afraid of in our world, but there is also a lot of misinformation that compounds that fear. 

This paragraph really stuck out to me the other day. I don't find it true of many that I know personally, but I have recoiled at the general reaction of much of our nation in the face of the slightest "threat", and I do use those quotation marks with the utmost seriousness. "I smell fear among Christians in America. Why do I say it’s fear? Because fear breeds irrationality. Fear doesn’t listen to facts. Fear looks to others to justify itself. Fear sees conspiracies in every corner. Fear gets caught up in group-think which, in our saner moments, we would scratch our heads at and wonder how we sold our thoughts in the slave market of sheep herders." (source)

{back to quoting from here] "It's gotta be OK to admit that systemic injustices wear us down, and that we have to do vindictive, vicious things in retaliation sometimes. But it's gotta stop being OK to pretend that it's the be-all and end-all of activism. That that is resolution. Or healing. Or making real change."

Sometimes, realizing that I might be wrong puts me into the panic zone. Not because I hate being wrong (not that I love it), but because when that shift happens in a conversation, I become overwhelmed with how this new information I'm considering is going to affect the way my beliefs are constructed. I envision my thoughts and beliefs as being a structure made of toothpicks. If one is removed, how much damage will it do to the main building? If many are moved or replaced or rearranged, will the entire direction or shape of the building change? How does that affect who I am and what my life looks like? That transition makes me panic until I'm able to stabilize my toothpicks.

Somewhat related, how I react to being wrong or being in the learning-verging-on-panic zone depends on who I am learning from. I'm much less likely to learn from an arrogant, ignorant person, though it does happen - sometimes those kinds of people trigger a realization for me, rather than me learning from whatever "information" they're trying to force-feed me with. Sometimes it is too shameful for me to show that I'm learning from an bigot. Being in my panic zone forces me to analyze why I'm there, and that sends me back into the learning zone, but I can't admit that I'm in the learning zone because the teacher is so odious.  

"The size of our Stretch Zone, and our ability to get back into it, change all the time. They depend on the day, on who's involved, on the issue, on everything. Already on a good day, it's not easy. "

"Strategies to go from panic to stretch: journaling, deep breathing, looking at options & choosing less triggering things, identify and accept that you are in the panic zone, have a person to help you be self-aware. It can also really help to move around briskly, to get into your body, take some space and ground yourself. It can help to talk to someone who loves you, to sing, to cry, to quiet yourself." 

One of my new tactics is just to chant "learning zone! learning zone!" when I start feeling panicky about what someone is saying. Just tonight, we had some dinner guests who I was meeting for the first time, who are much older than I am (they start off with a higher level of respect), and I was unsure of their politics (though I can guess). At one point, I very respectfully mentioned how unAmerican I find Mr. Trump to be, and one of our guests began to explain to me the perspective that he thinks Trump is coming from, and how it feeds off of a basic economic fear in America right now that many of us have - a sense that we are unable to keep our personal/family well-being afloat in terms of opportunity or security (no matter the threat). I can identify with feeling powerless, and although that pushes me in a different direction than Trump's politics, I chanted "learning zone!" to myself and I truly appreciated that perspective and the opportunity to sympathize with some Americans that I have a very hard time loving. 

As I was mulling this post over in my head, it came to me. The Golden Rule. This whole essay could probably just have been a status message: speak to others the way you want to be spoken to. As I type this right now, I'm feeling pretty calm and optimistic. I've changed my perspective several times recently and I remain in one piece. I'm still able to be confident about what I believe in, but I'm also more able to hear people who don't agree with me, and therefore, I am more able to see them as being of worth and then treat them with love and fairness. 

I think that it's likely that the political scene in America will explode before it resolves peacefully, but I hope to be here when that happens and in the aftermath, reaching out to everyone who is scared and confused - myself included - and Calling In that we can build something better. 

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