Anyone who spends time on social media or has attended a large family dinner knows political arguments can get ugly fast. Most people give up and avoid controversial topics. But there are ways to disagree productively if you know how and are willing to admit you could be wrong.
Julia Dhar, a former world debate champion who works for the Boston Consulting Group, bills herself as a “champion of ideas, facts and productive disagreement.” She uses her debate experience and insights to coach people on how to engage, not argue; how to replace contempt with conversation.
“The way you reach people is by finding common ground,” Dhar explains in a Ted Talk. She refers to that common ground as “shared reality” – in this instance, an idea with conflicting sides that both sides agree is significant.
“Debate requires that we engage with a conflicting idea directly, respectfully, face to face,” Dhar says. “The foundation of debate is rebuttal. The idea that you make a claim and I provide a response, and you respond to my response. Without rebuttal, it’s not debate, it’s just pontificating.”
Dhar concedes debating doesn’t eliminate disagreement; it merely structures disagreement to make what is polarizing “palatable” to discuss. Put another way, debate formats and rules offer a way out from personal attacks and contempt. “The conflict, of course, is still there. That’s why it’s a debate,” she says. “Shared reality just gives us a platform to start to talk about it.”
Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict, agrees that finding common ground is essential to productive conversation. Ripley asserts people cannot find common ground until they agree to put aside a “good-versus-evil” perspective that allows arguments to overwhelm discussion. Her book features examples of combatants findings “ways to transform high conflict into something good, something that made them better people. They rehumanized and recategorized their opponents, and they revived curiosity and wonder, even as they continued to fight for what they knew was right.”
A key to convincing someone or some group to engage in a debate, Dhar claims, is to separate an issue from identity, which is the point Ripley also makes. Persuading someone who holds a different view, Dhar says, requires the “intellectual humility” of accepting that you may change your mind or at least be more open to an opposing viewpoint. She calls leaning into engagement “the desire to persuade and be persuaded”. Separating ideas from identity and being genuinely open to persuasion, she observes, is how we connect with each other and learn from each other.
Structured conversations in a debate format don’t just happen; they must be engineered. Dhar thinks they can be engineered in a lot of places – professional conferences, townhalls, staff meetings and community groups. Before television and social media, Americans listened attentively to debates over serious issues, as was the case when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the expansion of slavery. Modern speakers and audiences would be unaccustomed to the accepted norms of Lincoln’s day, but a crisp back-and-forth of views and their factual basis could capture and hold attention in this age of video clips and tweets, Dhar believes.
The trick may be how to convince people with opposing views to engage in discourse on social media without insults and dismissive comments. Dhar offers a stiff test for constructive conversation. “I ask them at the outset to pre-commit to the possibility of being wrong,” she says. “The principles of debate,” Dhar believes, “can transform the way we talk to one another, to empower us to stop talking and to start listening. To stop dismissing and to start persuading. To stop shutting down and to start opening our minds. “
Respecting another person’s intelligence and principles, and having them respect yours, may just be the kind of shared reality necessary to converse, disagree and learn.
In her book, Ripley provides an example of what Dhar describes. More than 50 residents of a rural town in Denmark agreed to attend a townhall to discuss wolves. The meeting occurred after a motorist shot a lone female wolf while two naturalists were filming it. The incident exploded into a community controversy. Danish social scientist Hans Peter Hansen moderated the townhall and began by identifying shared realities – “We have nature in common” and “We have the future in common.” As Ripley described the meeting, “No one disagreed”.
Then the meeting turned to the source of the conflict. “Instead of avoiding conflict, we confronted it,” Hansen said. What the conversation revealed was that the disagreement was more complex than suggested by the labels “wolf lovers” and “wolf haters”. “No one fit perfectly into one group. No one ever does,” Hansen explained. As the meeting proceeded, Hansen sensed “people felt heard” as they related personal experiences with wolves – or the debate surrounding wolves. A key finding from the townhall was a common fear about the safety of children playing in the woods near wolf pack lairs just outside the town.
“In every high conflict I’ve seen, fear is lurking underneath,” Ripley says. “Until it gets excavated, it’s hard for the conflict to go anywhere.”
Ripley connected the Danish village wolf conflict to the current debate over COVID vaccine and mask mandates. The protection of wolves, she says, was viewed by some as undermining their autonomy. “They thought of themselves as self-sufficient people who protected their land, livestock and family from all manner of natural forces. In their minds, nature was to be controlled by humans, not the other way around,” Ripley observed. The laws protecting wolves were just another example of “elites telling them what to do, with complete disregard for the realities of their lives.”
Widespread, persistent disinformation can be a major stumbling block to constructive conversations. In debates, there are facts, not alternative facts. In today’s media milieu, it can be hard to distinguish real facts from falsities or lies. For Dhar’s ideas to work, debaters must agree to ground rules about basic truth. For example, you can dispute the benefits of a higher minimum wage, but you can’t ignore how minimum wage laws have affected overall wages. That requires people being willing to debate with data, not supposition or assumption. It requires people to go off script in discussing an issue.
Dhar coaches individuals and organizations to seek engagement as a path to problem-solving. People clashing on social media may be satisfied with defending their point of view in their bubble rather than addressing and solving problems. Despite impediments ranging from non-facts to stubbornness, constructive conversation is possible if you try hard enough and long enough to engage, not sling insults.
What emerges isn’t always agreement, but it can be mutual respect. Respecting another person’s intelligence and principles, and having them respect yours, may just be the kind of shared reality necessary to converse, disagree and learn.
“People do escape high conflict,” Ripley says. “Individuals – even entire communities – can short-circuit the feedback loops of outrage and blame if they want to. This is a mind-opening new way to think about conflict that will transform how we move through the world.”