Since the election, I’ve been noodling on one of the core competencies of Crucial Conversations: Separating facts from stories. We live in strange times where many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what is something they believe is true—seeing them as equivalents. How do you have a reasonable conversation with others when you can’t even agree on the definition of a fact?
Dear Alternative Facts,
I agree with your premise even more than you do. You say, “ . . . many people can no longer distinguish what is true vs. what they believe . . . ” Substitute “all of us” for “many people” and I’m with you.
You’re struggling to have “reasonable conversations” and I’d suggest part of the reason might be that you have an illusion of your own invulnerability to the same massive distortion.
We smugly tell ourselves that the reason we have conflict with others is that they are subject to silly self-serving biases. We, by contrast, see the world as it is. Or, at least, far better than “they” do. We are more cosmopolitan, educated, and sophisticated. They are a bunch of mindless pawns to whatever pabulum is served up to them.
The problem isn’t that we are wrong about them. The problem is that we are wrong about us. When your feelings of rightness turn into feelings of righteousness you’ve almost always crossed the line into self-deception.
What makes this all worse, today, most of us inhabit internet filter bubbles. What we like to think is a random sample of correct-thinking humanity reinforces our deluded sense of our own objectivity dozens of times a day with invisibly, but carefully, curated content.
If you want to have reasonable conversations with those who have come to widely divergent views from yours, here are some tools:
1. Drop the adjectives. When describing others’ views—even when they are out of earshot—stop using inflated and inflammatory language. For example, making the statement, “A trade war would be a mutual suicide pact! Hasn’t he taken a basic econ class?” has a predictable influence not just on the other person, but on you. The reason for reducing your use of adjectives is not to understate your views, it is to cease escalating your own feelings of separation. You can’t communicate with someone you don’t respect. The word “communication” comes from the same root as “community” and “comity.” The word literally means “to make common.” The more you amplify your adjectives, the more you erode even the possibility of coming to common views with others. I am not suggesting you wallpaper over substantive differences you may have with other people. I am only suggesting that you be circumspect about maintaining integrity with your own facts by lacing them less often with inflammatory “stories.” For example, “My understanding of economic history is that it generally leads to mutually harmful trade wars.”
2. STATE your facts. If you want others to be more fact-based, be sure—even when among “friendlies”—to hold yourself to the same standard. It feels exhilarating sometimes to sing the chorus of our own conclusions with those who harmonize with us—but this makes for mental laziness that atrophies our patience with those who sing a different tune. Develop the discipline, when sharing your opinion in any context, of starting with the facts from which you claim to derive your conclusions. For example, if you believe tariffs are bad, why do you believe that? If you’re like me, you’ll be humbled to realize you’ve simply been repeating what those you hang out with or read from have been saying, and you may struggle to really remember the factual basis for your conclusions any more than those you’re tempted to deride.
3. Patiently walk others back down their “paths.” In Crucial Conversations we describe the “Path to Action”
The model suggests that how people act is the result of a path that begins with an experience. Our senses gather data through hearing, seeing, etc. Then we tell a story about what we experience. The story creates our feelings. And our feelings influence our actions. The problem is, our brains are designed for efficiency. So we tend not to store all the source data that shapes our stories and feelings. We tend to remember what we think or feel about things. But we don’t remember all the facts and observations that generated those stories or feelings. Thus, we are terrible at revising our views but great at arguing for their rightness. Knowing this, we can be more patient both with ourselves and others. We’re all deluded. But we can help each other out.
When someone tells you what they “think” or “feel,” gently and respectfully help him or her recover the connections to the “why.” Ask about what he or she has seen, done, read, or learned that informed these stories and feelings. Don’t provoke defensiveness by pointing out how lame and inadequate his or her evidence is. All you’ll do is rupture the safety within which he or she can rationally reconsider with a larger pool of meaning.
I hope these ideas are useful to you. I like the saying, “Oh Lord, please help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” Yet, I think in the end, we all sin in pretty similar ways.