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May 19th, 2020
This episode is dedicated to Scott Adams, who recently described an instance when he employed the skills of an excellent communicator with a disagreeing friend. You can find this description on Twitter here. And to be sure, this episode was written before discovering Scott Adam’s thread on the topic and Tinkered Thinking makes no claim on the topic upon which he was conversing.
Our skill as communicators is shown bare when we speak with enemies. The level of our communication does not rise to the level of those who agree with our message, it falls to the depths of those who disagree. To simply shrug one’s shoulders and claim that some people just aren’t going to agree misses the point. Our goal as a communicator engaged with an enemy is not to gain assent, it’s to create respect.
Enemy is perhaps a harsh word that should be clarified. An enemy harks of a relationship that is irredeemable, one that can only be approached with force and fear. But the category of ‘enemy’ as a concept says everything about the person who claims to have an enemy. As a word, it does not communicate anything reliable about the person or the people it claims to identify. Anyone claiming to have enemies should immediately be regarded with suspicion because of what it implies about the psychology of the person using such a word. The simplest and most practical reason is because that category could expand and suddenly be levelled to include you.
The point is perhaps better highlighted by a different phrasing:
Who would you rather have as an ally?
Someone who can identify their enemy?
Someone who finds the idea of an ‘enemy’ too limiting, someone who looks at the wide expanse of human affairs as a dynamic playground that exists outside of such definitions.
Now what exactly does that second option look like? Do we heed the words of a sandal-clad hippie from a few years ago and look upon everyone as a friend and turn the other cheek when an adversary wishes to land a strike?
Perhaps. However, a couple thousand years have surely revealed the impracticality of such a perspective.
It is possible to develop a personal level of stoicism that imbues a person with the ability to take an infinite amount of blows and even laugh in the face of death. And while this philosophy is exceptionally useful, it need not be the only tool on our cognitive Swiss-army knife. We need to entertain, explore and incorporate a variety of options, in the same way that the friend/enemy dichotomy is too limiting.
The alternative that exists between submitting to an enemy and raising arms against the enemy is a more difficult middle path, one that hinges on our ability to communicate.
Recent technologies have highlighted the default way that disagreeing people communicate. We seem convinced that if only we shout our point of view loud enough and forcefully enough that it will be convincing. We somehow also seem aware that this absolutely does not work when employed by the other side, but then we suffer a true instance of cognitive dissonance and fail to see the glaring contradiction in our own method.
Speaking with friends is perhaps too easy. When we see nods and murmurs of agreement while we describe a point, is it evidence that our description is strong and convincing? Or do we grow weak in our abilities to communicate by preaching only to the choir? An impressive communicator makes an adversary pause to think. An impressive communicator helps another consider a different perspective, and this is almost never achieved by some description of a personal opinion.
The best way to achieve this is to first listen, and then ask questions about what you hear. And to clarify, the sort of question we are talking about is not a cheeky repackaging of our own opinion, like “Have you considered this…?” The questions that crack open the wall that stands in the way of good communication actually breach that wall and curiously explore the view point of another.
A confident communicator takes this route because the seed for unravelling a poor perspective is already buried within that poor perspective. This seed is often a small discrepancy in the thinking of our adversary or companion in dialogue. A discrepancy that they are unaware of, one that often hinges on two contexts that they have never considered together but which are actually related.
The task of a good communicator is to find that seed by exploring the mind of the adversary with questions, and then once that seed is found, to then nurture it, again with questions, by asking that adversary to resolve the discrepancy in their own thinking.
If we only describe our own opinion, with our own perspective, then we wallpaper the space between people, and in doing so we close them in and close ourselves in. We build echo chambers, both for ourselves and the people we so desperately wish to convince. We have to ask: are we helping our enemies build their echo chambers?
Or are we willing to do the more difficult task of finding the right questions that can thread through the enemy’s defenses and burrow deep into the echo chamber in order to let in a little light?