Thursday, January 12, 2012

Agreeing to disagree: The difference between talking at and talking with someone else.

Public discourse is no longer about conversation.  That is a real shame.  We have gotten used to speeches and sound bites.  Even when individuals with opposing views appear on TV or the radio, they tend not to talk with each other.  They simply talk near each other.

This absence of conversation among people who disagree has pervaded our own lives as well.  Difficult topics like politics, race, and sexual orientation are broached carefully in public.  Often, people tentatively express views and only elaborate if they come to believe that the other people in the conversation agree with them.

Why does this matter?

Talking with people who disagree with you can be unpleasant in the moment.  It is not fun to have your assumptions challenged.  Many of the topics that are most difficult to discuss are ones that strike deep at our own core values. 

When someone disagrees with you about something that you hold dear, your first reaction is often strong, emotional, and negative.  You can feel yourself getting angry or upset.  But in polite conversation, you have to mask that anger and frustration and maintain a civil conversation.  That is hard. 

And so we resist it.

But having a real conversation with someone that we disagree with ultimately makes us think more similarly.  In order to be able to have a conversation with someone, you have to have some amount of common ground for the discussion to go forward.  You have to find ways to make sure that you are talking about the same concepts.  If you disagree about what basic concepts mean, you end up resolving those disagreements as part of the process of making yourself understood.  Ultimately, that makes your concepts similar to those of the person you were talking with.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Suppose you go to work at a hardware store.  In the aisle with all of the fasteners, there are lots of long thin pieces of metal that are used to hold things together.  Some of them are nails, others are bolts, still others are screws (and among the screws, some are metal screws and some are wood screws).  Suppose a co-worker is standing in front of a box of bolts, and you ask her to bring you the screws.  The co-worker might respond by saying, “Oh, do you mean these bolts?”  The co-worker isn’t trying to teach you a set of categories, just to comply with your request to bring you something.  But in the process of understanding your request, you have refined your knowledge of fasteners.  That is, just trying to be understood affects the way you think about things in the world.

I did some research demonstrating this effect in a 1998 paper that I wrote with Valerie Makin that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General.  We had people build Lego models working in pairs.  One person had the instructions for building the model, but could not touch the pieces.  The other person could manipulate the pieces, but could not see the instructions.    Later, we asked people to sort the various Lego pieces used in the models they built into groups that went together.  People who conversed together sorted the pieces more similarly than people who conversed with others in the process of building the models.  That is, talking with someone made people think more similarly.

Lego is a far cry from politics, but I have done a few other unpublished studies in my lab using moral dilemmas.  People who discussed a moral dilemma with someone else thought about that dilemma more similarly after the interaction, even if they disagreed about how the dilemma should be resolved. 

It is important to recognize that the importance of conversation is not in changing attitudes.  Conversation is important, because it helps us all to agree on our basic concepts.  We settle on that agreement, because that is a necessary first step before we can even make an argument to someone else.  We resolve the differences in our concepts along the way to making ourselves understood.

In the end, disagreements are healthy.  In public discourse, there are difficult problems that do not have simple solutions.  It is ok to have a conversation and ultimately to agree to disagree with someone.  But, we cannot even begin to solve these problems unless we come to some agreement about what the argument is about.  And that agreement cannot happen without conversation.