Opening Minds: Replacing Arguing with Understanding

istock_000010777463xsmallWhen I write on this blog, I do it often more to help me clarify and develop my own thoughts rather than to preach to anybody.  That is the nature of this post.

If you’re reading this, then you likely spend a good deal of time on Facebook.  There are many good things about Facebook.  I am connected to people more regularly and I am connected with people I would otherwise not be connected to.  I’m not very picky.  If I know you at all, or you’re connected with a lot of my friends then you’re in.  I don’t care what your political and religious views are.  I’ve never unfriended anybody for them, but I’ve seen more arguing than I’d care to see.  I’ve also done it myself.

I grew up in a family of very intense “discussers”.  An outsider might perceive it as arguing, but to me arguing implies a discussion with disagreements that becomes emotional and personal.  I try very hard not to get personal or emotional in a discussion.  I don’t always succeed.

So why do we argue?  Are we hoping to persuade someone to change their mind? Force them to admit that they are wrong?  Changing someone’s mind is a rare thing.  A friend changed my mind about who to vote for in the Presidential primary; not by telling me I’m wrong, but by giving me the information I needed to make a more informed choice.   Perhaps I change my mind too easily, but it’s only because I keep it open and strive to consider things from a logical and rational perspective before considering the emotional.  I fail when I dwell on opinions and speak from my own emotional baggage.

I’m not entirely sure if I’ve ever changed anyone’s mind.  Most people don’t inform you if you have, but I do have a five point method for creating a dialog which could open minds, if only my own.

1.  Understanding

The most important point is to understand the other person’s perspective as well as possible.  You cannot do that if you bring your personal opinions into the discussion immediately.  When you listen dispassionately and carefully, it is disarming.  Nobody is on the defensive.  That may be the end of the dialog; you hearing someone out, but it can also be the beginning of a very honest dialog.

2.  Opening Minds, Not Changing Them

The next important piece is that you relinquish any stake you have in changing the other person’s mind.  The point is not to change a mind, but to open it, which means you have to be the first to open your mind and consider the other person’s position.

3.  Know the Differences Between Your Facts and Your Opinions/Beliefs

I’ve mentioned leaving opinions out at first.  Opinions and beliefs aren’t bad, but it is important to be self-aware enough to know the difference between your opinions/beliefs and the objective truths.  I always preface an opinion with “This is my personal opinion” or “This is my personal belief”.  It’s harder to argue with someone’s  opinion and beliefs when they are not misrepresented as an objective truth or fact.

4.  Speak Their Language

Once you’ve understood someone’s perspective, then you understand their language or their terms.  When you understand their language, then you can speak your perspective in a language they understand.  This is far more persuasive than using your own language and ideas to communicate your position.  And I’m not just talking about words, but their subjective meaning as well.  And also the components which make up their perspective.

5.  Admit When You’re Wrong

And finally, you must be open to the possibility of conceding your position on the merits of the arguments, otherwise it is not a dialog, it is an assault.  This one is the toughest one.

I’ve argued until my face was burning and my emotions were swirling out of control with the single motive of forcing someone to see how wrong they are. I’ve listened to just enough for me to make counter-arguments.  I see this on Facebook all the time.  This is when the unfriending begins.  A dialog requires humility; a willingness to admit that you might be wrong.

The core of what I’m writing about is mutual understanding.  This is where peace and compassion and learning begin.  I’ve found that once people know that they won’t be attacked and that you sincerely want to understand them, they will discuss just about anything with you, and they are more likely to want to understand you.  I’ve had so many meaningful discussions with people who disagree with me over the years; perhaps more meaningful than discussions with people who agree with me.

My impetus for writing this is that I’ve seen hundreds or thousands of posts this year in which arguments are made that only the people who agree with them will find persuasive; preaching to the choir, so to speak…a way of venting.   Good dialogues begin by asking questions with the sincere hope of understanding more often than they do with accusatory or disparaging statement with clever memes.



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