February 01, 2021

Hit a nail and...

 In these polarized times, many people are wondering how to talk with people who think differently...often VERY differently. This is especially important when it comes to people you have to deal with, can't avoid and can't banish to a desert island or asteroid.

I've always found that a good place to start when wisdom is needed is the ancient Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching. To paraphrase some lines from the last chapter of that classic, "beautiful words are not true; truthful words are not beautiful. Arguments do not convince. The person of Tao does not argue."

That's hard advice to take until you think about it. Hit a nail and it goes in deeper. Push somebody and they push back harder. Pull people to you and be clingy and they'll probably pull away. Overuse an antibiotic and it'll stop working. Force, literal or otherwise, often creates resistance to itself. The so called "soft" martial arts are based on this insight and they can be very effective. In dealing with stronger opponents, it's about the only thing that works.

 The author Holmes Welch summed this up in Taoism: The Parting of the Way: if we interfere with existence,

 "it resists, as a stone resists crushing. If it is a living creature it resists actively, as a wasp being crushed will sting. But the kind of resistance offered by living creatures is unique: it grows stronger as interference grows stronger up to the point where the creature's capacity for resistance is destroyed. Evolution might be thought of as a march towards ever more highly articulated and effective capacity for resistance. Humans and human societies are thus highly responsive to challenge. So when anyone, ruler or subject, tries to act upon humans individually or collectively, the ultimate result is the opposite of what he is aiming at. He has invoked what we might call the Law of Aggression."

So if screaming at someone or otherwise flaming out isn't the best persuasive strategy, what is? Maybe a couple ideas from psychology and counseling might help.

First, psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt argued that we generally have two operating systems. System 1 is pretty much autopilot mode, largely if not literally always unconscious, emotional, intuitive and reflexive. System 2 is our conscious, deliberative and rational self. We like to think System 2 is in charge, but most of the time we roll with System 1. It saves a lot of time and energy and is pretty adaptive most of the time--except when it isn't.

Haidt likens the two systems to a little person (2) riding on a huge elephant (1). The rider pretends to be in charge, but is really more like the elephant's lawyer than its boss. When challenged, the rider usually comes up with some more or less rational arguments to justify whatever the elephant does.

You don't usually get too far arguing with the rider. It's a better strategy to talk to the elephant. It's really kind of common sense that we often do better if we build some kind of rapport and find even a scrap of common ground. As my mother used to say, "you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

(There's a pretty funny meme that argues you catch more with a rotting corpse, but that's not important right now).

Here's a real example. I'm friendly with a legislator with whom I disagree on just about everything. However, we both geek out on ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy. After a bit of banter about Boethius or Plutarch, we can sometimes find some agreement or at least amuse ourselves for a moment. Similarly, listening projects, which are open ended surveys based on empathy can often help people think through things and sometimes wind up in a different space.

Another similar idea from counseling is motivational interviewing, which a friend described as the opposite of nagging. In a recent NY Times op-ed that's worth a read, Adam Grant described this way: 

 Instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.

Obviously, this takes patience and time, but as Lao Tzu loved to point out, soft things like water can overcome hard things like rocks and that flexible trees can survive storms that fell more rigid ones.

As someone who tries to write persuasively about issues, I obviously think there's a place for rational argument. It's just that arguments are often more likely influence or move other people than one's opponents. 



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