A lot of people really dislike conflict and have a low opinion of it. They’re uncomfortable with disagreements at the office, think there’s no room for contention at church, worry that fighting with their partner means their relationship is destined to dissolve, and generally feel that heated arguments tear communities apart.
My guest today, Ian Leslie, used to be one of these conflict-averse people. But as he discovered in researching his new book, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes, conflict not only brings us together, the lack of it, he says, just plain makes us stupider. Today on the show, Ian and I discuss why people get the idea that conflict is unproductive from watching online arguments and why these flame wars aren’t actually indicative of the value of arguing offline. We then delve into this surprising value, from the way conflict makes us smarter, to how couples who have heated arguments are actually happier. Ian unpacks some of the myths around difficult conversations, such as the idea that they have to be done in a strictly rational and unemotional way to be fruitful, and he offers ways to approach conflict that will make it more productive, especially remembering to always prioritize the relationship above all.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: The Rationality of Emotions
- AoM Podcast #559: How to Handle Difficult Conversations
- Podcast #648: Lessons in Building Rapport from Experts in Terrorist Interrogation (With Laurence Alison)
- reddit — Change My View
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. A lot of people really dislike conflict and have a low opinion of it. They’re uncomfortable with disagreements at the office, think there’s no room for contention at church, worry that fighting with their partner means the relationship is destined to dissolve, and generally feel that heated arguments tear communities apart. My guest today, Ian Leslie used to be one of these conflict averse people, but as he discovered in researching his new book, “Conflicted, How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes,” conflict not only brings us together, the lack of it, he says, just plain makes us stupider. Ian unpacks some of the myths around difficult conversations, such as the idea they have to be done in a strictly rational unemotional way to be fruitful, and he offers ways to approach conflict that’ll make it more productive, especially remembering to prioritize the relationship above all. After the show is over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/conflict.
Alright, Ian Leslie, welcome to the show.
Ian Leslie: Thank you, Brett. Very good to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out called “Conflicted, How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.” I’m curious, how did you take a deep dive into the nature of social conflict?
Ian Leslie: Well, I think, like a lot of things, we can blame Twitter for it. I… [chuckle] My last book was about curiosity and I was looking for, I guess, another aspect of human nature that I thought hadn’t been fully investigated or not in a really interesting way. And as I was thinking about this, I was both observing and then sometimes participating in really stupid toxic arguments on Twitter, kind of futile bickering. And again, I think that really is what brought it to mind, I was thinking, “There’s so much bad argument out there, why is that? And what can we do about it?” And I felt it particularly because I’m a pretty conflict averse person myself. I actually try and stay out of conflict or direct disagreement, or at least I did. But the more I looked into it, and the more I thought it, and the more I kind of researched this topic, the more I came to think that actually the problem is not that we have an excess of disagreement, it’s actually the opposite.
The problem is people like me. [laughter] the problem is that people like me see all this, the kind of top of the iceberg, the toxic stuff on social media and on TV, and we think, “Wow, this just confirms what I thought,” which is that, “Disagreement and argument is really something to be avoided and I’ll do anything I can to do so.” What happens when you do that is you make yourself a little bit stupider, to be blunt. [chuckle] Conflict is one… Well, really the central way, disagreement is kind of the central way in which we do our thinking collaboratively and it’s also something as we’ll talk about that I think brings us together ultimately, even if it puts stress on relationships. In the meantime… So we can’t do without it. We might pretend, we might think we can, we might try and avoid it, but actually, when we try and avoid it, things just get worse.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And we’ll dig into some of the benefits, the surprising benefits of disagreement and conflict. A lot of it’s counterintuitive from popular advice out there. But before we do, I think people do have this in general a hunch that, okay, through disagreement, you can do sort of this synthesis, right? Where you can get a new idea. And so that’s why we go into debates, with that idea. It never turns out that way ’cause it becomes acrimonious, like you said, Twitter is a perfect example, and so we think, “Okay, to make these debates more productive or these conflicts more productive, we gotta use some certain techniques and approaches so it’s more rational.” What are some of these popular approaches that people typically take to make sort of corral debate and discussion and conflict, and then why don’t they usually work?
Ian Leslie: Well, I mean, one of them is just to, as you indicated, is to become extremely rational, is to say, “Look, we’re going to discuss this. Let’s take all the emotion out of it. Let’s model our discussion on a kind of Oxford seminar or [chuckle] something where we just talk about the facts, and we talk about reason, step by step.” And that is really… First of all, it’s kind of implausible, I mean, your emotions are nearly always invested in what you’re… The point you’re arguing to some extent, and as much as you try and suppress them, they find their way out and people [chuckle] can sense it, right? But secondly, it’s just in a way it’s naïve. It’s actually your emotions help you to do thinking, right? We think with our emotions as well as our faculty of reason, and this has been demonstrated many times in different ways by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and so on. And philosophers talked about this, David Hume said, “Reason is the slave of the passions,” and it should be, [chuckle] because when you’re emotional, you actually… You drive yourself to come up with better answers and better arguments. So I don’t think that taking emotion out of it is a wise idea, nor do I think falling back on a kind of very strict series of rules about going step by step and taking one point at a time, all this stuff can be useful in certain limited context, but for the most part, I think you have to go with the grain of human nature rather than against it.
Brett McKay: Alright. So this I idea of, “You can take emotion out of the debate, that will solve it,” that’s naïve, implausible, and actually you make the case, and we can talk about this later as we go throughout our discussion, it makes discussion or debate kind of impotent, kinda limp, and it takes some of the…
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. But another thing you make, a point you make about conflict, that people often overlook, conflict isn’t often over facts, it’s usually about a relationship. Can you flesh that out a little bit more for us, what you mean by that?
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So if you talk to communication scientists, psychologists who kinda study communication, conversation, they will tell you, and I’m putting it in very simple terms, but there are fundamentally always two channels of communication that are opened during any tense conversation. Actually any conversation, but they become very apparent when there’s some conflict at stake. One is the content channel, and that’s the kind of… The content is the thing that we are ostensibly arguing about. We’re arguing about who should be running the country, or if we’re at home we’re arguing about who should take the trash out, whatever it is, that’s the content of the disagreement. And then there’s this other level, which is actually not verbalized most of the time, not articulated, but it’s the relationship level, and that’s going on underneath, sort of submerged, and that’s about what I think about you and what you think about me. Do you like me? Do you respect me?
I’m thinking that, and you’re thinking that, or if it’s a group of people, we’re all thinking that to some extent. And until that relationship level is settled in some way, then the content level is going to be disrupted, and it will kinda go off the rails. And often when arguments, disagreements go wrong, and the participants are thinking, “Wow, this is going badly. Why is he being so crazy?” Or, “Why is he being irrational? Why is he not listening to me? Why is he so sullen? Why is she being so sullen?”, whatever it is, it’s always because there’s some unsettled dispute at that kind of invisible relationship level, and you need to get to that first. And this is where the smart disagreer, somebody who’s skilled at productive disagreement, productive conflict, this is what they’re good at. They’re very good at being attentive to that relationship level and working out ways to fix it when it needs fixing.
Once it’s fixed, and you have a mutually satisfactory relationship in the conversation, then you can really get into the content level and have a really vigorous disagreement because nobody is feeling slighted, put out, ignored, and so on. So just bearing in mind those two levels I think is really important.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, I think people will see this in relationships, like marital relationships, when couples argue about something like cleaning out the egg pan after you finish it, it’s really not about the egg pan, it’s just about a mutual… It’s about respect, basically.
Ian Leslie: I would say more that it’s about both, and it’s always about both at the same time. And you kind of have to keep your eye on both. And when people have studied this, I hate to conform to or to confirm stereotypes, but it is more often than not, the men who are not paying attention to the relationship level of an argument and only focusing on the content. They’re usually the ones thinking, “Oh, well, I’m just being very rational and focusing on the thing that we’re arguing about. Why is she getting so upset?” And meanwhile, the woman is actually paying attention to relationship level and she’s saying, “Now why is he being patronizing to me?” Or, “Why is he bossing me around?” Or, “Why is he not recognizing how much work I do in this household?” There’s some underlying thing going on here that she’s attentive to and the man’s not, and you get that imbalance.
Now one of the interesting things about that line of research is that it’s not that men are “hard-wired to”, in inverted commas, to only focus on the content level, ’cause actually when they’re given an incentive to do so, that actually give the man money to pay attention to it, they can do it perfectly well, [chuckle] it’s just that they’re not motivated to do it most of the time. And you see that in other contexts too. Often the person who’s on the kinda wrong end of the power imbalance is the person who’s really paying attention to that more emotional relationship level, and the person who’s not is just looking at the surface content level.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I think two takeaways so far we’ve gotten is that when you’re in a conflict or a discussion that’s conflicted, don’t discount emotions, don’t discount the relationships. You gotta keep those two things in mind, it’s not just about facts, and we’ll talk about how…
Ian Leslie: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Some advice or… I’m not gonna call them techniques, but principles that you can use to use your emotions in your relationships to make conflict more productive. But before we do, I think a lot of people have this feeling that you had looking at Twitter. I mean, they look at it and they’re like, “Man, this is just terrible. I get into these debates. No one changes their mind. Everyone’s angry. This was not useful. This was not a productive use of time.” And I think what you talked about, that we don’t always have a strong relationship or any relationship with the people we engage with online, is part of the reason for that. And then, another thing you talk about in the book that I thought was really interesting and that I think can help us understand why online arguments are so unproductive, is this idea of high context and low context, and online communication is primarily low context. Can you flush that out for us?
Ian Leslie: Yeah, it’s a distinction from Anthropology. They talk about it in terms of countries and sort of global cultures, but actually you can apply it in all sorts of ways, but let me explain it through that lens. So they would say these are two types of communication culture. A high context communication culture is, an example would be China or Japan, usually the Asian countries are more high context, and what that means is the social context in which you’re in does a lot of the talking for you. So a conversation around a boardroom table in Japan, you would find, compared to a western boardroom, there’s less verbalizing of people’s opinions. People are… Really kind of express themselves much closer according to the roles that everybody has in the room. You don’t have to say much, everything is said obliquely. And you don’t really have direct disagreements, that’s seen as very gauche and rude and disruptive.
And that can work, because everybody understands the context, everybody has a very kinda deep immersion in the kind of relatively homogenous culture of a Chinese boardroom. In a western boardroom or western office or any kind of a western context, you have much lower context culture because you have more diverse groups of people from different cultural backgrounds, different belief systems, different religions, just different kind of ways of behaving and speaking, thrown together, and everybody has to articulate what they’re saying, they have to kinda spell things out, right? When you don’t have all that context guiding you in terms of what you can say, you actually have to be more kind of articulate, more verbal. And that leads to the situation where you’ve got everybody speaking their minds, and when everybody’s speaking their minds, you’re bound to have more clashes of opinion. And by the way, nobody’s saying high context is better than low context or vice-versa, that’s completely beside the point.
These are just two ways of communicating. But the low context way will give rise to more disagreements ’cause you’ve got… Yeah, I’ll just say lots of people speaking their minds and lots of people kind of talking across purposes because they have kinda different ways of understanding cultural norms. Now, this is a long-term trend, as societies become more diverse, and people move to cities, and all sorts of different people from different backgrounds meet each other at work and so on. But it’s been accelerated and amplified by the internet, ’cause if you think about it, the internet, and social media is like the ultimate low context culture, you’re just… You’re engaging with and talking to and seeing people, who you have no idea who they are, and all you have to go on is… Are these words in a box, right? You have no kind of sense of… It’s very hard to intuitively understand where people are coming from a lot of the time, and so no wonder you have all these kind of disagreements, there’s just so much kind of dry tinder there for things to explode into toxic conflict.
Brett McKay: Yeah. With low context online, people are typically just responding to the most recent thing.
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And that just… It causes these flame wars, ’cause they’re ignoring or they don’t have… They’re not privy to all of the other communication, like the unspoken norms that might be in that online social group. And I think people see this like on Reddits, or like, some internet forums, where there might be a community there where people have been together talking to each other for a long time, so they kind of… They know each other, they have some sort of unspoken ground rules…
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And then a new person comes in.
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And that new person, that… You typically don’t go through the archives and see what everyone’s been talking about, you just throw something out there, and it’s typically often inflammatory or it breaks this unspoken rule, and everyone just gets upset by it, and then the person who did the initial bomb throwing is like, “Well, I don’t know what the problem is, I just wanna talk about this and… ”
Ian Leslie: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And it’s because it’s low context, like there’s… It’s a low context communication medium.
Ian Leslie: Exactly, and so what that means is… Well, first of all, it means social media is just always gonna be hard for productive conflict. I don’t think there’s a kind of an answer to that, I just think, in a sense, my suggestion to a lot of people is, “Don’t get into too many conflicts on social media. Or over email, whatever it is, or in Slack. Where you can, try and have your disagreements in person or over video, where you can get more kind of a richer sense of the relationship channel.” You get a richer sense of the other person’s background or context. Or where you are encountering people who are from a different kind of micro-culture, it doesn’t have to be a completely different culture, but as you say, it can be just somebody coming into it to a forum where more people have established norms and not understanding them, help them understand it quickly, like get them up to speed on the rules, don’t just blame them for being rude or stupid, and so on. Just say, “Look, this is how we do things here,” quickly try and establish some context where there is none.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so you made this point, when people see conflict, people who are conflict avoidant, they’re like, “I just don’t… I wanna opt out. I’m just gonna avoid conflict as much as possible.” But as you said earlier, when you do that, you miss out, you become stupider. But then there’s also you miss out on strengthening your relationship through conflict. Let’s talk about this idea that conflict can actually strengthen relationships, because this seems counter-intuitive, it’s like, “Well, conflict’s the thing that separates people. It’s why people get divorced, alright? It’s conflict about an issue.” So how can conflict bringing people closer together?
Ian Leslie: It is counter-intuitive and it kinda goes counter to our feelings about things, because disagreement, direct disagreement with people, is a little bit stressful. It does put stress on the relationship, but I think about it in terms of exercise, right? I mean, I am not necessarily enjoying myself when I go to the gym [chuckle] and I can feel uncomfortable, and sometimes I’m in pain, but I go back every week or whatever it is, because I know that actually the muscles grow back stronger and ultimately can… And it’s the same with relationships, they need some kind of stress in order to grow back stronger. There’s a really interesting line of research from the scientists who study marital relationships or long-term couples, where… And in this field, it used to be thought the norm was that couples who argue a lot are the couples who split up because they had looked at couples who split up and they said, “Did you argue a lot?” And they said, “Yes.” Then… And when actually they started doing more kind of sophisticated experiments of this, they got a different story. And what they do is, just briefly to explain the model of this research, is they’ll get couples into the lab and they’ll say, “Can you just discuss an issue of contention, [chuckle] a long running bone of contention in your relationship? We’ll leave the room, leave the camera on, and you two just talk about it.”
And actually couples usually get into it pretty quickly and start talking and kind of forget that the camera is on. And then they track the progress of that relationship over the coming weeks, months, and years, so these are kind of longitudinal studies. And what they have found, and this has really only became apparent over the last sort of 10 years or so, is that the couples who are quicker to rise to argument, and have quite often quite kinda heated back and forths are the ones who are more likely to stay together over the long-term, and to be happier, and to have solved the problems that they are discussing. So number one, [chuckle] I just think that’s hilarious, and great. And some of my favorite couples are the ones who just really have no hesitation in kinda getting into it and having a big row, but still love each other, right? I think that’s kind of really interesting, but also begs the question, “What is that? What’s going on there?” And when I asked one of the psychologists who run these studies… Runs these studies about that she said, “Conflict is information.”
And what she meant by that was when you are in an argument, you’re really learning about what the other person really thinks and really feels. Right? You’re getting a little glimpse into their soul, the veil of politeness, or just passivity is dropped and you say, “Oh right. Wow. I didn’t realize you cared about that so much, that’s what you think, is it? My goodness.” Right.
And in the moment it can be quite uncomfortable and stressful, but you’re updating your model of your partner. And it’s a really important thing to do. ‘Cause if you don’t do that, you have to this stick with this model of your head of what your partner’s like, and you think you know them really well, you know them better than they know themselves. Five, 10 years down the line turns out they’re completely different from the person you had in your head and the relationship comes to an end. So arguments and conflict are giving you information about what your partner is thinking and feeling, they’re keeping you up to date on their emotions and ultimately bringing you close together.
Brett McKay: And that can showcase like how not arguing can cause relationships to go south, because you have all those emotion kind of seething beneath the surface. And there’s a lot of resentment. And then they might express itself in passive aggressiveness.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I mean, so the psychologists and organizational psychologists look at this as well. People who study workplaces and so on. They will talk about how different kinds of aggression are productive in different ways, depending on direct aggression versus indirect conflict and so on. The one form of conflict that nobody’s found any benefits, for whatsoever is passive aggression. [laughter] Passive aggression comes to no good. It’s corrosive. And it’s what happens when disagreements and conflict aren’t aired. The disagreement, the issue of contention does not disappear. It does not dissolve into the ether. It is merely swept under the carpet. It goes underground and it kind of corrodes the basis of the relationship and whether it’s in a marriage or in a workplace you should really be trying to minimize that.
And that means having your… Getting used to having your disagreements out in the open and not feeling like it is actually a huge, terrible high stakes dramatic thing. It’s just the way we are. It’s the way we do things.
Brett McKay: And I think a key to making these, like having a row with some… Your spouse or a kid or someone at work is as long… I think it is Gottman, as long as you avoid contempt, like that will be fine. ‘Cause as soon as you go into, I think you’re little, I think you’re less than what you think you are. I’m gonna call you names. That’s not going anywhere, but if you can passionately argue without going there, it’ll be productive.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, exactly. And again, it’s that thing of trying to pay attention to both things at once, which is hard when you’re emotional and you’re getting upset about something, but just keeping one part of your brain, which is like, what’s going on with the underlying relationship here. Are there things that I need him or her to know about what’s going on? Okay, well let’s try and air those. But am I kind of pressing in areas that’s just gonna make them feel kind of small or to make them feel crushed? That’s not good. And that’s not gonna lead to a productive disagreement and it’s not good for the relationship.
So my advice is not to, just have, get it all out there and scream and have terrible arguments. It’s more kind of, try and secure a good basis on which you can have… A good relationship basis for you to have arguments that kind of stick to the thing that you’re meant to be talking about.
Brett McKay: All right. So conflict can bring us together because it’s a medium through which we can gain more information about the person.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I mean, another, a more blunt way of putting is, it’s how you learn the truth about the other person.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah.
Ian Leslie: It’s when you speak truths to each other.
Brett McKay: Well, another benefit of conflict is it makes us smarter. And this again is counterintuitive because I think a lot of people, they get in debates online. Like I’m dumber. Was it… I think it’s from Billy Madison. Like we’re all dumber from experiencing this conversation, but you make this counterintuitive case that even unreasonable positions we take in a debate actually can make us smarter. How does that happen?
Ian Leslie: Yeah, so it’s often said that… The problem with disagreement is that we all have confirmation bias, and we’re all just motivated to make the argument that we’re making and that… And again, it kind of goes back to this thing of, and it just gets emotional and nobody’s kind of thinking rationally. There’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s not the whole story, because if you think about it, if you are really strongly motivated to make a case, there was some emotional motivation for you to make an argument, to a large extent you’re gonna make a better argument. ‘Cause you’re gonna be working harder to think of more reasons why you are right, to pull up or to find information that supports your case.
And to look for weaknesses in the other person’s argument. Emotion is the great motivator. And when we were working hard at something, we’re more likely to be good at it. So there is some benefit to confirmation bias, to this feeling that I wanna make this case, because it’s my case. If you think about a disagreement where the parties involved, as soon as they hear a good counterpoint, they go, “Okay, yeah, yeah. Right. You’re probably right.” What happens then? Not much. I mean, the disagreement effectively comes to an end, ’cause everyone’s just too kind of calm and rational and nice and goes, “Yeah. Yeah. You probably got a point.”
Really good productive kind of insightful disagreements come from people who tend to be quite vigorously engaged in what they’re arguing. Who have some kind of incentive to really make the case, and to take it maybe a little bit too far sometimes. Now of course, if you take it too far and you never back down, you’re completely inflexible. That’s not good either. So we have to kind of be somewhere in the middle, you have to kind of ride your biases, learn to ride them, you know, give them kind of some free rein. But don’t let them control you, but don’t shy away from… Having your heart in the disagreement as well as your head.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And you use Socratic dialogue as is a great example of… People being unreasonable, but allows you to get to a truth. Socrates often engaged with these interlocutors, who were just like, you could tell they were just… They were digging in their heels. But through that process, you were able to get closer to trying to figure out what justice is.
Ian Leslie: That’s right. And Socrates was actually good at, he’s underrated as an emotionally intelligent interlocutor, he was good at managing his interlocutor’s responses. If you look at the dialogues, there are moments where he is effectively saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t get angry when I say this, but let me put it this way.” And he’s calming them down. Because even in Athens at the time, argument was seen as this zero-sum game of persuasion where you win or I win. I persuade you to do something or you persuade me to do something. Socrates was very innovative when he came along and said, “Hey, look, it doesn’t have to be like that. We can all be in this as a collaborative endeavor. What we’re trying to get at here is truth. So it doesn’t matter if I’m right, what matters is that we are right as a group. And the best way to get to truth is in discussion.”
So Socrates understood something that we’ve lost sight of to a certain extent, which is that intelligence is collaborative, it’s interactive. We do our best thinking with other people, even when we’re thinking by ourselves, we do our thinking often because we’ve internalized other voices, we’ve been reading or talking to people that disagree with us, and now we play out the argument in our mind. We put so much emphasis, especially recently with the advent of neuroscience and fMRI scanners, put so much emphasis on the individual brain, what’s going on in the brain, what’s the brain doing, that we forget that, actually, the process of reasoning and thinking and debate is a social one.
Brett McKay: Well, you just brought another point, this idea that with the Sophists in Athens their whole approach to this debate was someone has to win, winner take all.
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I think a lot of people today, they have that approach to a conflict, there has to be a winner. And so with that mindset, our typical approach to debate is on persuasion. We read books on persuasion.
Ian Leslie: Yeah.
Brett McKay: About how we could be more persuasive, so we could show that this guy is wrong. This is just exactly like the Sophists, they use rhetoric to win arguments and persuade people. And then Socrates comes along and said, “It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to have debate or discussion like that. There doesn’t have to be a winner. We can just have this conversation, this conflict, and hopefully get a little bit closer to the truth.” So I guess, one takeaway too is just be more like Socrates and less like the Sophists.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why he didn’t write anything down. Obviously writing has been a net boon for us as a civilization. But when he was around, it was a relatively new technology. It was like, I don’t know, the iPhone or something like that. You take it or leave it. And he didn’t like it. And the reason he didn’t like it is that it couldn’t talk back to him. You write something down on a page and it just sits there. He really liked the idea that when you put a proposition forward, somebody comes back and tries to knock it down. And you say, “Well, yeah, I disagree, but I see your point here,” and you move the conversation on and the thing unfolds. But yeah, he had to… He was really introducing the whole idea of an intellectual inquiry to western civilized form, made him such a great figure. Up until then, as you say, the process of reasoning and debate was really about who wins. Who’s gonna come off best here in this battle of wits. And Socrates, his point was, “No, actually, we can use our reasoning for this other thing which is getting to the truth together, acting collaboratively.”
Brett McKay: All right. So knowing that conflict, there’s an emotional element that we… If we try to take it away, that’s probably futile, but it also, we also make our debate less potent. And then also knowing that conflict is about relationships. I wanna talk about some of the advice that you’ve picked up based on research and talking to experts on how you can have more productive conflict by taking these two factors in mind. So this idea in order to have a productive conflict with somebody, you had have to have this relationship with trust where you can vigorously argue and disagree without harming the relationship. How do you establish that trust and how do you allow… How do you prevent the debate from harming the relationship in the process?
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So there’s many different answers to that, many different ways of thinking about it. I talked about this principle of first connect. Often the reason that a debate or disagreement goes wrong is that we get to the disagreement too quickly. We go directly at it before we’ve really settled the relationship. And you got to do that first before you get in there. As you know, for the book, I talked to people who have really tough conversations under very extreme conditions. So I talked to hostage negotiators, and terrorist interrogators, and divorce mediators, therapists, all sorts of things. They all do it in different ways, but this was the theme, the people who were really skilled at those jobs, what they’re really skilled at is settling the relationship level before you get into the really tough part.
So a hostage negotiator does not pick up the phone and say, “Right, how are we gonna get you down from this roof? Or how are we gonna get the hostages out, out of this situation?” They are trained, the good ones spend a few minutes going, “Okay, look, I just wanna say, thanks for doing such a good job here. You’ve stayed calm. And we all appreciate that you have the right intentions.” And whatever they can do to settle that person down, to make them feel a little bit more secure, so in the relationship that they have with you, that’s gonna be good for when you get into the actual negotiation. But people are not gonna be able to have a good disagreement with you if they’re feeling insecure, threatened, that’s when they shut down or they get really, really aggressive. Same with interrogators.
I know you’ve had Laurence Alison on the show. He is a brilliant academic who trains terrorist interrogators in Britain and around the world. And one of the things he says is that bad interrogators are the ones who walk into the room and say, “Right, you need to tell me what you know.” That’s gonna shut the person down. In a sense, you are playing into their hands that they’re prepared for that situation. They just say, “Okay, well, I’m not gonna say anything.” The really skillful interrogators make a big deal out of the fact that you don’t have to speak. Depends what your legal regime is but they’ll say, “You have the right not to say anything. You have the right to a lawyer. And the fact is, I can’t tell you what to do. They can’t tell you what. Nobody here can tell you what to do, it’s up to you.”
But, listen, I really wanna hear your story ’cause I’m really interested and you have to be genuinely interested by the way you can’t fake it. But nine times out of 10, when they do that, the person opens up. These hardened terrorists who’ve been trained for this kind of situation, they really wanna tell their story. And your job is to, first of all, establish a relationship with trust and second of all, let them feel like it’s their choice to speak. And once you do that people will open up. So it’s a kind of long answer to your question, but there is several different things going on here.
Brett McKay: Yeah I think Laurence C calls it, when you in a conflicted debate or discussion with somebody, you have to let go of the rope and not try to control the person what they think or feel.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So, probably the most frequent problem with a disagreement is that it turns into a power struggle of some kind. Whether an overt one or a covert one. Where people are kind of trying to establish their dominance, obviously or subtly in the conversation. And if you wanted to go well, you gotta to do everything you can to stop that from happening. So as soon as you feel the rope, torten into a kind of tug of war, Laurence’s suggestion is, let go of it. And often terrorists or criminals who are being interrogated and who are used to it and are prepared for it, they will try and turn it into a tug of war. So they’ll do kind of disruptive things, they put their feet on the desk and your instinct as an interrogator, or as a police officer or whatever it’s to say, “Get your feet off the desk.” “No, I don’t want to.” “Get your feet off the desk.” “No, I don’t want to.” And it’s just a futile pointless diversion from the thing that you’re meant to be doing. And Laurence’s suggestion in that type of situation is, “If you want your feet on the desk, that’s fine.”
Brett McKay: Well, another point that Laurence makes is that even when someone is saying something that you disagree with strongly or it just doesn’t make sense to you, instead of just dismissing them right away, what you wanna do is approach them with a kind of intellectual empathy. Like where you take a step back and try to figure out what’s going on in their head. And like why they care about something the way they do and why they think, why they’re thinking the way they’re thinking. Because even when someone’s position seems just irrational on the face, if you listen to them, there is sort of rationality going on to what they’re are thinking.
Ian Leslie: Exactly. Right and you see this with your kids actually. ‘Cause they’re being very emotional about something and it seems completely trivial to you. And your temptation is to say, “Oh, don’t be so stupid. Why would you get upset about that thing?” Often, there’s some deeper reason that they’re getting upset about it. It’s connected to something they really do feel deeply about that does make sense. But you can only get there by taking their initial point of view kind of seriously saying, “Yeah tell what I can see you’re really upset about that and I wanna hear more about it.” Because as you say the thing that appears irrational might conceal some sort of deeper, rational objection, deeper disagreement that actually kind of, is interesting and is worth discussing. But you can only get there if you are genuinely interested in why that person is thinking like that and feeling like that.
Brett McKay: And then when you do that, you’re establishing that trust and it opens up the person to your point of view, possibly.
Ian Leslie: Yeah, absolutely absolutely. So it becomes a kind of virtuous cycle. So yeah I think when you’re really stuck in a disagreement, you think, well, how can we even find any common ground here, then just switching into curiosity mode and saying, “Okay I can at least to be interested in how they got there.” It can get you into that better kind of virtuous cycle.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It sounds like what you’re doing is making the communication more high context, right? You’re making unspoken things explicit.
Ian Leslie: That’s a great way of putting it. And I talked about high context cultures and low context cultures in terms of China versus the US the west versus the east. But look every conversation is a little culture. You and me are, we have a little micro culture between us, an agreed, an unspoken kind of background set of norms about, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s interesting and what’s not interesting. And so your job in a conversation, that’s a difficult conversation I think is to try and help the other person, understand your culture and to try and understand their culture. And it doesn’t have to just mean they’re a Christian and I’m a Muslim or whatever. It just means, how’s this person’s well, how are they used to thinking and talking and how is it different from me? And how can we kind of move a little closer together there.
Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about in the book is establishing boundaries for conflict. They make them more productive, and this isn’t a… Using Robert’s rules of order right. But it is sort of having like a loose framework. What can that framework look like and how do you get people to agree on the boundaries of a discussion or a conflict?
Ian Leslie: Well, I think that the point about setting boundaries is that they can be very very simple. In fact, one of the most simple ones is just no hostility. So actually here’s a kind of good real world example, you mentioned Reddit earlier, there’s a great kind of subreddit called Change My View. Set up a few years ago and I talk about it in the book. The point of Change My View is, yeah, you, what it says on the tin really, you go along and you say, look, here’s a think something I’ve been thinking about here is my view on, feminism, whatever it is, what do you think? And I’m willing to be talked out of it and amazingly this, this seemingly kind of like this thing, which is so antithetical to the spirit of social media has actually been very successful and been hundreds of thousands of users and they just have a few very simple rules. And then they kind of closely monitor. They have a set, quite a few moderators who monitor the debates and make sure these rules are followed. And they also incentivize the people who follow them they kind of give them badges. So they’re kind of gamified as well.
But the rules are very simple and one of them is, just don’t be hostile. Basically, don’t be a Dick, right? You’d be amazed how far that one goes. Another one is, don’t just repeat the same arguments over and over again. If somebody has come back with a counterpoint, you have to address their counterpoint, just kind of don’t stick to where you are. And if you do that, you’re breaking the rules. And just being explicit about the rules up top is something we just don’t do very much. You do it, if you can do it at work, it actually can go a long way, say at work, in this workplace, we really value open disagreement. So we want people to do it A and B here’s a few guidelines rules, whatever you wanna call them to make it go better. And this is how we do things at our company. Hardly ever happens. But sometimes really good companies like Netflix that’s how they operate, right? They put a great emphasis on open disagreement and they set those principles out very clearly. And it goes a long way.
Brett McKay: Well, we’ve talked about some techniques. I don’t like calling them techniques, they’re principles. I want I like principles a little better. Because I think technique is to life hacky.
Ian Leslie: Yeah I agree.
Brett McKay: And a discussion or a debate are really fluid and complex but like, what’s one thing that people can start doing today to have more productive conflict. Is there like one thing that you found in all your research that provides a real big bang for your buck?
Ian Leslie: Well, I think as a kind of general the, as you say right there wasn’t like a hack that you can just apply to everywhere. There are principles. And I think probably the most important principle is to try and make the other person feel good about agreeing with you. And actually, lower the stakes for them in terms of coming around to your point of view. And that ultimately that means making them feel secure, making them feel respected, making them sure. Making sure that they feel that you like them and so on. If they don’t feel any of those things, they are never going to have a productive disagreement with you. So kind of keep your eye on how the other person is feeling, the more relaxed, more comfortable in themselves they’re feeling the more likely they are to get into a good disagreement with you.
Brett McKay: Well Ian, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ian Leslie: Sure. I mean, so the book is called Conflicted, so you can just Google my name and Conflicted and it’ll come up. Or go to my website, which is Ian-leslie.com. And I’m on Twitter for my Sins @Mr.IanLeslie. So you can come and see me there and watch me failing to follow any of the principles that I’ve just laid out down and getting into terrible disagreements online.
Brett McKay: Well, Ian, thanks for this time it’s been a pleasure.
Ian Leslie: Thank you so much, Brett really enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ian Leslie. He’s the author of the book, Conflicted it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Ian-leslie.com. Also check out our show notes today at AoM.is/conflict where you can find links to resources, Where we delve deeper into this topic.
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