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Weekly 3: Make the most of conflict

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Summary: Learn how to debate. Rank the validity of opinions. Pay attention to your blind side. (~8 mi
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

December 23 · Issue #66 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Learn how to debate. Rank the validity of opinions. Pay attention to your blind side. (~8 min read)

#1. It's possible to have productive disagreements
Management consultant and debate coach Julia Dhar argues in her TED Talk that the same formal debate techniques used in high school auditoriums can be applied by all of us to have more structured and mutually-respectful disagreements in our personal and professional lives.
The premise of formal debate is straightforward: there’s some big, controversial idea like whether to raise the voting age, with one group arguing for it and another group arguing against it.
At the heart of the process is rebuttal – one person makes a claim, the other person provides a response challenging that claim, and so on.
Dhar suggests we can use the following 3 formal debate techniques to have more productive disagreements at home, in public spaces, and where we work:
1. Establish common ground
Research shows that simply presenting information that contradicts someone else’s worldview actually strengthens their original beliefs, instead of changing their perspective.
As Dhar points out, this is why the most effective and persuasive debaters start by finding some common ground on a given topic – no matter how narrow it is.  
“They identify the thing that we can all agree on and go from there: the right to an education, equality between all people, the importance of safer communities.“
2. Separate ideas from identity
We spend a lot of time dismissing ideas based on the identities of the people who hold them – their demographic, organizational, or political affiliation.
But in a formal debate, attacking the identity of the person making the opposing argument is irrelevant because the debaters don’t choose their sides: “Your only winning strategy is to engage with the best, clearest, least personal version of the idea.”
When Dhar works with teams in organizations that are trying to solve some complex problem or come up with a big idea, she starts by asking each person to submit ideas anonymously.
3. Get comfortable with uncertainty
Dhar notes that one of the reasons it’s hard to have productive disagreements is that we become attached to our ideas: “We start to believe that we own them, and that by extension they own us.”
But when you repeatedly practice formal debating, you will eventually switch sides – for example, you’ll end up arguing both for and against expanding the welfare state.
This exercise flips a “cognitive switch”: suspicions you previously had about people who have different beliefs fade, and you’re better able to see the world from their perspective.
It’s helpful for all of us to embrace this “humility of uncertainty,” and to ask each other: What have you changed your mind about and why?
#2. Some opinions matter more than others
Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, writes in his book Principles that, “When two people believe opposite things, chances are that one of them is wrong.”
It pays to know if you’re the one who’s wrong.
To do this, Dalio recommends practicing “thoughtful disagreement”: where your goal isn’t to convince the other person that you’re right, but instead to find out which view is true and what to do about it.
In thoughtful disagreement, you’re motivated by a genuine fear of missing important information and perspectives.
Dalio offers the following 2 tips for disagreeing more thoughtfully:
1. Ask questions instead of making statements
You can show the other person that you’re interested in understanding them by framing the conversation with a question like: Are we going to try to convince each other that we are right, or are we going to have open minds and hear each other’s perspective in order to find out what’s true?
When you frame the discussion this way, it’s easier to approach it in a calm, dispassionate, and reasonable manner because “you are not arguing; you are openly exploring what’s true.”
2. Be both open-minded and assertive
You want to adopt an attitude that allows you to hold in your mind conflicting possibilities, while moving toward whatever is likely to be true based on new information.
One exercise to make sure you’re doing this is to describe back to the person you are disagreeing with their own perspective – if they agree you understand it, then you’re on the right track.
But there are plenty of people who will disagree with you, and thoughtful disagreement can be time-consuming, so how do you choose which ones to focus on?
Dalio suggests that you spend your time exploring ideas with the most “believable” people you have access to.
A believable person is someone whose experience and knowledge make them a reliable resource for getting to the truth of a given matter.
For example, say you have an undiagnosed medical problem. Your own opinion about what’s wrong has a certain level of believability, your doctor likely has a different level of believability, and a second doctor has yet another level of believability.
For Dalio, the ideal scenario, in health care or any other context, is to bring together multiple people, each with a high level of believability and a willingness to disagree, and then learn from their differing perspectives.
#3. What would you see if you were wrong?
Business executive and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan writes in her book Beyond Measure that information wants to be different: “If everyone brings the same knowledge, then why have five people in the room when you could just have one?”
As Heffernan points out, unanimity is a sign that participation isn’t wholehearted.
You can have more effective discussions and reach better decisions by seeking out disconfirming information and perspectives.
One way to do this is to ask: What would you see if you were wrong?
Heffernan tells the story of Herb Meyer, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and used this approach to become one of the first people in the world to accurately predict the fall of the Soviet Union.
Meyer was responsible for producing the US National Intelligence Estimate, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the information he received because it only confirmed the prevailing wisdom: that the Cold War was still going strong, and that the Soviet Union was as powerful as ever.
Meyer then made a list of all the things that might happen if the prevailing wisdom were wrong and the Soviet Union was actually collapsing, and sent it to the spy networks.
It was a low-cost experiment: if they saw nothing, then the prevailing wisdom was accurate.
But one of the first data points that came back was news of weekly meat train that had been hijacked, with all of the meat stolen. The Soviet army had been contacted, but the country’s ruling party told the army to fall back and not tell anyone.
This is how Meyer himself recounted the events: “Well, that’s not what happens when everything in the economy’s just fine, is it? … So that started to tell us something. And then there was more like that.”
Quote of the Week
“If something offends you, don’t assume it’s wrong … I’m not saying it’s right, but if you dismiss it, you won’t learn from it.”
- Author and economics professor Tyler Cowen in an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast
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