Article of the Day: Do We Even Understand the Other Side?

Simply understanding the other side brings benefits, even if we remain biased.

Have you heard? People are talking politics. They’re doing it in the coffee shops. They’re doing it at home over the dinner table. And they’re doing it all over social media.

We the people are talking politics with each other. But how well are we doing it? If posting memes full of exaggerated, cherry-picked, dodgily-framed, so-called facts counts as good discourse, then we’re bordering on brilliant.

big-ben-450819Yet I can’t help thinking there might be a better way, where everyone, people on the left, on the right, in the middle, up above, down below, all of us have open and respectful dialogue with one another over policies that affect us all.

So why does political discourse descend to the mud nearly as soon as it begins? It’s partly tribalism. It’s partly a matter of hot cognition vs cool cognition (people become fearful and start running on adrenaline and cortisol, which basically turns off their more rational capacities). And it’s partly a dozen other little things. But it’s also partly because most people haven’t learned the value of open dialogue, and haven’t developed the skills for it. And even those who do have skills don’t use them all the time (point to self).

It’s not that open dialogue would lift us all the way out of the mud if more people practiced it. Politics is too much of a minefield for that. But more open dialogue should help us have more productive discussions more of the time.

So here’s what I’d like to do today. I’d like to cover just one small part of one dialogue skill that, if practiced by all, would raise us up a good way out of the mud all by itself. Granted, that’s a huge “if”, and maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I suspect that even if,hr> just 10% of the people (myself included) got just 10% better at this skill we would be much better off..

It’s simply this: understanding where your conversation partner is coming from.

Persuasion and Understanding

So what’s that skill? It’s simply this: understanding where your conversation partner is coming from.

This advice is not new. In How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie tells us that the most important way to reach the goal in the title of the book is not to wow them with our stories or brag about our credentials or accomplishments, but simply to listen to them in order to understand where they’re coming from.

In Never Split The Difference, Chris Voss, lead hostage negotiator for the FBI for many years, tells us that the number one way to make sure a negotiation goes well is to work hard to hear the words “that’s right.” When someone says “that’s right” to us, they know that we get it — we understand where they’re coming from and what they’re up against. Once we hear those words, Voss tells us, the rest of the negotiation unfolds fairly smoothly.

Even Aristotle weighed in on this, claiming that the “pathos” part of “ethos, pathos, and logos” demands that we understand the concerns of our audience.

The advice is not new, and the basic idea is not complicated, but it seems it must be re-learned nearly every generation.

Now, if you’ve already read this far, my guess is that you already listen and strive to understand others better than most people do. So we’ll go a bit beyond the simple, basic idea and look at a more specific exercise that pertains to politics in particular.

Understanding The Other in Political Discourse

untitled-1In political discourse, when we’re not arguing about the character of the candidates, we tend to argue about specific policies. And that’s great. The problem is, we tend to evaluate the other side’s policies in the light of our own goals and background assumptions. And they evaluate our policies in the light of their goals and background assumptions. In the end we aren’t really talking to each other, but rather talking past each other, and showing off for people who already see the world the way we do (even if sometimes those people are only present in our minds).

I want to suggest that, in politics, we’re going to have trouble getting to “that’s right” with someone unless we demonstrate that we understand their goals and background beliefs about how the world works.

Let’s work a specific example.

A liberal-progressive and a conservative walk into a bar, . . . and start talking economic policy. One wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and increase benefits for the poor, while the other wants the reverse. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one).

We can readily imagine their conversation quickly devolving into a fruitless discussion featuring phrases such as “taxation is theft” and “everyone needs a helping hand at times”. Then they either change the subject or start a brawl.

But how might things go if each makes an effort to understand the other’s goals and background assumptions — and to demonstrate this understanding, so the other person feels understood?

In order to get a handle on this question, let’s go ahead and attribute some goals and empirical beliefs to the conservative and liberal-progressive in our example.

Goals and Empirical Beliefs

These are the goals and empirical beliefs (about economics, psychology, and society) we will attribute to the conservative and liberal-progressive in our example.

Our Conservative’s Goals:

The economy should grow and produce good jobs.
People should work hard.
The economy should reward hard work.
Taxes should be kept to a minimum, and be used only for the very most important things.
Those who work hard for their money should not be required to give their money to those who don’t.
Families, churches, and non-profit organizations should be the ones who take care of the poor who fall on hard times and are willing to work hard to pull themselves back up.
Government entitlements should be kept to a minimum, in part, so there will be more money available for a strong military.

Our Conservative’s Relevant Empirical Beliefs:

untitled-2If the wealthy have more money, they will use it to create good jobs for others.
If we cut taxes, the economy will grow.
Most regulations hurt business unnecessarily.
Success is mostly the fruit of hard work.
Hard work usually leads to success.
Most inequality happens because some people (or their ancestors) worked harder than others.
Some people need the threat of starvation to motivate them to take a job or otherwise contribute to society.
Wealthy investors take great risk with their money and should be rewarded for this just as much as those who work hard for their money.
Our Liberal-Progressive’s Goals:

The economy should be strong and produce good jobs.
People shouldn’t have to work for poverty wages.
We should reduce or eliminate poverty
We should create a fair playing field.
We should reduce inequality.
Taxes should be used to allow us to cooperate on common goals.
We should protect workers, consumers, and the environment from negative externalities of free trade.
People who benefit more from society should contribute more to society.

Our Liberal-Progressive’s Relevant Empirical Beliefs:

The utility of wealth diminishes as wealth increases. (An extra million would mean almost nothing to Bill Gates, but would radically transform most people’s lives.)
Poor and middle class people spend a larger percentage of their incomes than wealthy people.
Economies grow faster when the people who spend money have money to spend.
When two people engage in a free, consensual trade, they can also inadvertently (or intentionally) harm third parties.
Unfettered Capitalism naturally leads to extreme inequality.
Wild success and dismal failure are, to a large degree, a matter of luck.
People who build big businesses rely on a public infrastructure that allows them to succeed.
People in general are not naturally lazy, but, when their needs are met, want to contribute to the greater good, whether through a job or by other means.
Extreme inequality in wealth also means inequalities in voice and power.

The goals and beliefs in these lists are intended to apply only to the people in our example. Real-world conservatives and liberal-progressives will probably share many of these goals and beliefs, but they might differ here and there as well.

And with that, let’s move on to the second part of this exercise.

Permute Policies with Goals and Beliefs

When a conservative defends conservative policies according to conservative goals, and using conservative background assumptions, we call it “preaching to the choir”. And it’s the same when Liberal-Progressives defend liberal-progressive policies in terms of liberal-progressive goals and using liberal-progressive background assumptions.

…people tend to preach to the choir even when they’re not addressing like-minded folks.

Everybody knows how to preach to the choir. And it plays well when we’re actually preaching to the choir. The crazy thing is that people tend to preach to the choir even when they’re not addressing like-minded folks. And that’s not a very good way to have a productive conversation across the aisle.

But defending one’s own policies in terms of one’s own goals and using one’s own beliefs about how the world works is just one of eight ways of matching up policy with goals and beliefs.

Here are all 8 combinations of empirical beliefs/goals/policies.

Our beliefs, our goals, our policies. (Preaching to the choir)
Our beliefs, our goals, their policies. (Warning our tribe about the other side’s policies)
Our beliefs, their goals, our policies (Reassuring the other tribe that our policies aren’t so bad for them)
Our beliefs, their goals, their policies. (Warning the other tribe that their policies won’t get them what they think they will)
Their beliefs, our goals, our policies. (Reassuring our tribe that our bets are hedged.)
Their beliefs, our goals, their policies. (Accusing the other tribe of not caring about our goals.)
Their beliefs, their goals, our policies. (Claiming that our policies work for everyone!)
Their beliefs, their goals, their policies. (Accusing them of being incongruent.)

Now it’s a bit of a mental workout, but here’s how this works. For each combination, we must consider some policies (either ours or theirs), imagine that the world works a certain way (whether it really does or not), and evaluate whether that policy will promote or hinder a certain set of goals (whether we share those goals or not).

In parentheses next to each combination I’ve noted just one thing we might do from within each perspective. And the astute reader might notice that, in each case, it’s a fairly biased course of action being suggested. When it’s our policies in question, we are defending them. And when it’s their policies in question, we are undermining them.

Setting aside bias is one skill that contributes to open dialogue, and understand the other side is another.

But that’s OK. Setting aside bias is one skill that contributes to open dialogue, and understand the other side is another. In order to highlight the benefits of understanding the other side, we’ll allow our discussants to be biased at this point. And we’ll see that, even if we allow each side to remain fairly biased, simply trying to understand the other side yields many benefits.

So What Happens When . . .

What happens if our biased liberal-progressive takes time to permute the polices with the beliefs and goals of both sides?

Well, preaching to the choir and warning our side about their policies (combinations 1 and 2) are already being done with vigor. So we’ll skip past those and look at the third combination. It will be instructive to look at all the combinations, but there isn’t space here, so the remaining cases will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Our beliefs, Their goals, Our policies (L-P)

untitled-3What happens when the liberal-progressive considers the policies of taxing the wealthy more and giving more public assistance, and evaluates whether these policies meet the goals of the conservative?

Going through the list of conservative goals they wrote out, they come to this question: Do these policies undermine the conservative goal of having everyone work hard (if able)? Can they at least see how a conservative might think it does?

And our L-P thinks, “Sure. If money is given to you, that’s money you don’t have to go out and earn. So there’s less incentive to go out and earn it.”

Ah, but the L-P believes that when people’s needs are met they still want to contribute, and that they might even be able to make better decisions about how to contribute when they’re not stressed out about making ends meet.

Well, OK. But that’s an empirical claim, and both sides can come together and, at least in theory, bring evidence to bear on the question.

And, perhaps, more importantly, when the L-P acknowledges up front that they can see how the C might worry that handouts might undermine work ethic, the C feels understood, and can lower their guard a bit.

Our beliefs, Their goals, Our policies (C)

Now let’s reverse roles. What happens if the conservative considers how well cutting taxes and cutting public assistance meets the goals of the liberal-progressive?

Does it undermine the L-P goal of reducing or eliminating poverty? Can our conservative see how it might? Sure. If people are in poverty, and we don’t help them, they might well stay in poverty.

Ah, but the C believes that if we tax the wealthy less, they will create good jobs, and those who are in poverty can get out of poverty by taking one of these jobs.

Well, OK, but that’s an empirical claim, and both sides can come together and, at least in theory, bring evidence to bear on the question.

And, again, when the C acknowledges up front that they see how the L-P might worry that cutting benefits might keep people in poverty, the L-P feels understood, and can lower their guard a bit.

Some General Benefits of Understanding the Other Side

unity-1767663_960_720In general, when we take time to consider how our policies look from various perspectives, it helps guide the discourse in more productive directions.

It helps the other side feel understood.
It enables us to consider how we could modify our policies just a bit to meet some of their goals without much cost to our own goals.
We might discover that we share some of their goals, and just disagree about how the world works.
It takes attention off of goals and values (which trigger fear more easily), and moves it toward empirical matters that can be assessed using evidence (keeping our cooler, rational minds engaged).
And those things happen even if we all remain biased. If we can learn to let go of bias a bit as well, even more benefits come on line. But again, that’s a topic for another time.

Now all this takes some work. But really, an issue as big as economic policy warrants a couple hours of thought. This is a topic that will come up over and over in our lives, and the work we do now will make us better discussion partners for the rest of our lives.

An Assignment

Start with national economic policy, since we’ve already started that example, and do the following:

Write down your economic goals (feel free to borrow from the lists we already started).
Write down your beliefs about how the economic world works.
Write down the economic goals of your most frequently encountered opponent.
Write down their beliefs about how the economic world works.
Consider all 8 permutations of beliefs, goals, and policies to see how things look according to each combination. (This is the most difficult part of this exercise).
Write down questions that come to mind under each combination.

And, in the future, when you get into discussions with people who come from a different economic perspective, go out of your way to show them that you understand where they’re coming from. Start with the guesses you made in doing the assignment, and let them tell you if those guesses capture their particular concerns. If not, keep asking them questions until you get where they’re coming from.

At that point they should be more open to hearing where you’re coming from. And you’ll be off and running.

Rinse and repeat for any controversial topic you frequently encounter.

Jim Stone, Ph.D.
, is a philosopher and an avid student of motivational psychology.

This article appeared on on 3 November 2016

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