Public discourse feels more polarised than ever before. This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It is published by Harriman House and out now….
In the early days of the pandemic many people were baking bread and rediscovering their kindness gene. That seems like a long time ago now. We’ve gone from clapping for carers to uncaringly slapping down anyone who may not share the same views as us on everything from race, gender, equality, class and the wealth gap.
Many people I know are capable of instantaneous combustion into a bin kicking rage at the mere mention of the ‘plan’ for reopening schools. I have seen the same level of frustration from those who are desperate for them to open too. It’s difficult for any measured argument to cut through the clatter but worse, it seems we’ve all stopped listening to each other anyway. Everywhere you look some shouty ‘influencer’ is pounding someone else for daring to see things differently.
This is most apparent in the conflagration of debates arising in the wake of the BLM protests: tear down a statue or let it stand? Legitimate protest or an act of vandalism? Venturing an opinion either way may attract a threat from the other side to tear you down. You don’t agree with them? Well you’re cancelled so there.
These arguments thrive on social media. Big issues are over-simplified by self-appointed citizen journalists, deliberately polarised to present someone or some group as the villains. Bubbling animosity can quickly become a firestorm. JK Rowling is threatened with rape and murder for her views; do concerns for male violence towards women trump the rights of trans people to express their identity? It’s all opinions (forcibly expressed) and no solutions.
What happened to the ability to take a deep breath and take perspective?
It should be OK to communicate the fact you see things differently. It should be equally OK for someone to disagree with your beliefs. That’s normal human discourse. At least it used to be. But it feels like real debate is being put into lockdown just as we emerge from it.
How do we agree to disagree and just get on with stuff?
In 2010, I spectacularly fell out with my fellow shareholders in a business I ran for a decade. Minor disputes over the direction of the enterprise turned into a power struggle, culminating in a firework’s display of red-hot emotions on the office floor.
We could have sold seats on Ticketmaster, but there was no going back.
In the period of reflection that followed the collapse of that partnership, one question kept coming back: was my partner’s position in the argument as valid as mine? Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can I confirm that yes, it probably was. Actually, what an idiot, I’ve done it again – strike the word ‘probably’ from that previous sentence. Even after ten years, it’s hard to acknowledge the other side’s perspective.
My learnings from that time inspired my new book – I Don’t Agree; why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences.
One of the first things I learned during my research was why the argument I had with my former business partners ended up the way it did. I couldn’t recognise my attribution bias: a state of mind where the deadlocks that prevent everyone moving forward in a disagreement are likely to be blamed on the other side – by both sides.
We actively seek out evidence supporting our position in the argument and our negative opinion of those on the other side; becoming blind to any evidence that suggests the other side might have a point. In this way our prejudices are reinforced.
We have a preference for what the clever folks in lab coats call similar-others. Meanwhile, we dislike dissimilar others. It has also been shown we tend to hold positive expectations of people who look and act like us, anticipating that they will be fairer, more trustworthy and more intelligent than those who are different.
But if we remain vigilant to our biases, while sharpening our cultural sensitivities, we are free to explore less confrontational ways to confront an argument. We can become more generous to those who might just hold a different view point. And how do we do this? Practice a little of what is called Status Affirmation.
I learned about this from the work of Dr Corrine Bendersky at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In her 2014 study she showed how people with conflicting political views could be persuaded to view their opponent as less adversarial. Berdensky used the Dictator Game – a famous experiment in social psychology in which a player (the dictator) decides how to share a prize (often a sum of money) with a second player. The latter has no influence over the decision and no rights of complaint should the dictator opt to share nothing. All they have is their persuasive powers.
You might expect that when people play this game with strongly held opposing opinions it may result in dictators who keep all the prize, all the time.
Not so. Having screened participants for their political affiliations around a hot issue of the day (then it was the so called Obamacare legislation), Berdensky reported that dictators gave away an average of around 40pc more of their prize – a pot of 10 tickets for a lottery – to those opponents who disagreed with them about the Obamacare act but who had also affirmed the dictators’ status. Opponents who had merely shoutily disagreed with the dictator without doing the affirmation earned zilch a lot of the time.
So, how to affirm someone’s status in a disagreement?
It’s about careful choice of words. You simply acknowledge your different opinion to your opponent by saying something like…
‘I know we disagree about this, but…’
And then you begin to work in the affirmation. The exact wording will vary depending on the subject, but it might be along the lines of; ‘I really admire people of principle like yourself, who can persuasively outline why they stand by their beliefs.’
Or ‘I understand your position and I see your viewpoint is increasingly influential in the world.’
After you have affirmed the status of your rival you might then go on to outline your argument, subject to any concession you might make to their point of view.
Some words of caution: Silke Eschert and Bernd Simon, from the Institute of Psychology at Kiel University, urged for a recognition of equal status, not high status. A famous quote springs to mind – I disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Worth bearing in mind next time you wade into a dispute with any firmly held opinion.
Will people listen more in the future? There’s still much to do. But, back to my first point; that some of us aren’t really hearing the wider perspective. It is time to stop shouting down and listen up instead.
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It’s published by Harriman House (£14.99) and out now.
The source article can be found here