Okay, here’s the thing: there’s a lot going on in the world right now and a lot of people seem to have lost their damn minds. A lot of issues make it feel like healthy discussions are somehow out of the question at this point.
And what’ll really cook your noodle later on, is that I could have made this statement at practically any point in modern history, and you’d still be nodding your head in concerned agreement.
Joking aside, there really is a lot going on in the world right now. Most of us, regardless of beliefs or affiliations, honestly want to help improve our world. And naturally, we each have more than enough emotions wrapped up in it all. These emotions are good, they’re supposed to be there. But without proper tactics, we’re bound to let emotion take over, cause each other further pain, and push each other further away.
But we can fix it. We just need to take all this emotion, and
put it somewhere else use the right tools to channel it into productive discussion.
So without further pontification (this is a lie), let’s jump right in and start learning how to separate toxic arguments from healthy discussions. Only then will we be ready to save the world.
1. From Competition to Cooperation
In toxic arguments, both parties set out to win. Through a combination of facts, emotional plays, and sheer force of will, each arguer attempts to “defeat” the other by crushing their argument (or in some cases, spirit). This concludes in one of two ways. Either:
- One arguer “wins” and achieves a superficial sort of vindication while the other slumps in defeat, OR
- No agreement is reached and both parties walk away frustrated and resentful.
In other words, either one person loses, or they both do.
In healthy discussions, nobody loses because there is no one trying to “beat” them. The whole objective is different. Both parties set out to reach a mutual understanding.
The outcome could be one person coming around to the other’s side, or vice versa. More likely, both parties will realize they had gaps in their understanding and come away stronger for having addressed them. Healthy debate has very little use for absolutes, and real-world outcomes are rarely binary.
How to Fix It
- Stop trying to “win” – if either party walks away feeling crushed and angry, you have lost
- Be cooperative – act like it is your shared objective to find common ground
2. Trading Superiority for Empathy
We’re in something of a renaissance right now for ideas that are at once both wildly popular, and wildly unpopular. There are many people who believe, for instance, that vaccines are extremely dangerous and unhelpful. Others believe that the Earth is a flat plane, alone in the universe. Still others believe that they have encountered extraterrestrial aliens.
If evaluated on upfront evidence alone, these ideas may seem ridiculous to the rest of us. But when we look at the emotional basis, explanations have been proposed for all of them:
- Doctors, god love ‘em, are often condescending jerks to their patients
- If the Earth really is just one tiny body of the cosmos, it is terrifying to consider just how small and insignificant each of us is in relation to it
- Victims of childhood abuse often have trouble understanding the actions of their abusers, and sometimes associate those events instead with otherworldly monsters
Experiences like these cause a great deal of insecurity, fear, or pain. The mind, as a defense mechanism, searches for an alternate narrative, one that makes more sense to the emotional gravity of the situation.
That is how ideas like these start. What solidifies them, though, and gives them their resilience… is the rest of us. When we encounter ideas like this, which are foreign to us and not well backed by credible evidence, we’re inclined to ridicule them, and act superior. Superiority deepens the insecurity of others and sends them further down the path of their beliefs.
The true challenge is to lead with empathy and understand not just the other side’s argument, but how they arrived there and why they feel that way. Because underneath is where the true difference often lies.
How to Fix It
- It’s not for you to unpack everyone’s baggage, but keep in mind that there is usually more behind how a person feels and what they believe than what you can see on the surface
- No matter how sure you are that another person is wrong, never try to humiliate or denigrate their belief; build a bridge between you and make it easier to cross
- Ask more questions. Try to figure out why, at the deepest level, you feel differently from someone else before trying to change their mind; don’t work from assumptions
3. Unification, Not Polarization
Have you ever bullied someone until they became your friend? Or scared someone into loving you? Here’s another: have you ever humiliated someone into respecting you? If not, as I’m guessing is the case, then why should any of us expect to be able to bludgeon someone into agreeing with us through the force of our arguments?
When you try to change someone’s opinion by positioning yourself above them, rather than trying to understand them, then you’ll only ever push them further away from you.
But if you want to change someone’s mind, open their eyes, or win them over, you need to start by getting on their level and trying to understand where they’re coming from. When you do that, you’re just as likely to gain a new perspective or spot gaps in your own understanding. Be ready to embrace that, too. There’s far more self respect in learning than in being the loudest.
If you try to crush your counterpart’s argument into submission and drag them to your side, you will always push them away. But if you try to understand them, and encourage them to do the same for you, most likely you will both end up taking steps toward somewhere new.
How to Fix It
- Shift your goals: ending up in the same (or at least a closer) place with your counterpart is far more important than yanking them over to your side; where else in life is your goal to end exactly where you started?
- Realize that sometimes you will reach the point of shared understanding, and still have different opinions. That’s an okay point to reach. Just please, please don’t use the phrase “agree to disagree.” Ew.
4. Attacking the Issue vs Attacking the Person
There’s a piece of advice I heard a long time ago, and I’ve found it to have a huge positive impact on countless interactions. The advice was this: When you’re having a difficult conversation, always attack the issue. Never attack the other person.
Difficult conversations almost always evoke strong emotions. Successfully navigating such a conversation necessitates both parties working to de-escalate the emotional tension and diverting their resources to actually resolving the issue that caused the emotions.
And this ties back to the previous point: polarization. If you want to win someone over, you’ll be charging up a steep hill covered in grease if you think you can do it by attacking them.
How to Fix It
- Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements – e.g., “I heard this…” is much more effective than “You said this…” at clearing up differences and easing tension
- Avoid broad statements or generalizations about the other person’s character; these are often inflammatory and usually unhelpful to the issue at hand
5. The Difference Between Knowledge and Intelligence
Being, acting, thinking, and working “smart” can mean a lot of things. When it comes to separating healthy discussions from ugly arguments, there are two specific types of “smarts” that we need to understand. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to them as “knowledge” and “intelligence.”
- Knowledge: The things that you know. Facts and information that you can bring up in conversation and use to back up your claims.
- Intelligence: How you process, examine, and interpret information. You could also call it critical thinking.
Neither of these is the “good one” and neither is bad. In fact, truly helpful conversation will always need both.
Knowledge is an essential building block of healthy conversation. Without tangible facts, emotional thoughts and opinions will be running the show, and we don’t want that. But leaning too heavily on knowledge to make a point creates a push toward superiority, and thus to polarization. We all must use our intelligence as well, not just to critically process the knowledge on the table, but also to know when offering up more facts and figures isn’t what’s missing from the debate.
There is rarely a shortage, particularly in the 21st century, of facts and figures to support any opinion in a debate. And calling back to point #2, that’s rarely what’s missing from healthy discussions. What is missing is empathy.
Healthy debate, contrary to popular belief, is not about crushing your counterpart with your vast library of knowledge. Intelligent debate is a joint effort to explore and evaluate two conflicting baskets of information and opinion.
How to Fix It
- Bolster your points with evidence, but refrain from inundating people with facts and information; less is more
- Do NOT directly attack the information that others offer; no matter how invalid it looks to you, that will not help. Find another route to helping them see your perspective
6. Moving From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset
The way of thinking that leads to toxic arguments is brittle. Arguments can only happen when both parties come in convinced that they are now, always have been, and always will be correct. And remember from point #1 that a win-lose dynamic gets you nowhere.
It’s so easy to feel like you are totally right, and the other person is totally wrong. And maybe that’s true. But the reality is usually far from binary. We all have something left to learn, or a new perspective still to see.
Even in the midst of trying to influence someone else’s opinion or understanding, you too will still always have room to grow. And that is the beauty of it. By letting go of a need to validate whether you were “right” or “wrong” initially, you open yourself up to the possibility to learn, maintain an open mind, and no matter the outcome, develop a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issue.
Judge yourself not by the veracity of your starting beliefs, but by the flexibility and open mindedness with which you express them, challenge them, and contrast them with those of others.
When you cultivate a spirit of growth through healthy discussions, others are sure to follow. Turn away from the fixed mindset, and say yes to growth.
How to Fix It
- Try not to end a conversation exactly as you came into it. Even if your basic stance remains, there’s always something new to learn, or a new detail to consider.
- Be wrong; When you learn or realize something new, own it. There’s no shame in learning; the only shame is in trying not to learn
- Support others who take ownership of being wrong as well; encourage collaborative behavior and people will be FAR more likely to collaborate
Let’s Save the World with Healthy Discussions
In times like these (which, again, you could sub out for pretty much any other times and it still fits), we’d all do well to start having better healthy discussions. Emotions run high on difficult issues. And working with our emotions, as well as those of others, is much more effective than trying to overpower them with logic and overwhelming erudition. Understanding is a path through conflicted waters. And it is most needed at the times when it is hardest to achieve.
The improvements suggested in this list work best when embraced by all parties. However, you can only be responsible for you. Be a leader and model healthy discussions for those around you. Usually, others will enthusiastically follow that example. And even when they don’t, you’ll still be better off for your part if you act in a way that is open-minded, constructive, and worthy of self-respect.
I challenge you to get out there and have more healthy discussions. You have the power to reach people and to bring newfound attention to your beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be. It will not be easy, but the fun stuff so rarely is. Throw out insecurity and a desire to “win.” Replace them with respect, humility, and a willingness to hear and learn, and you’ll be amazed what you can achieve.