Talking Big Ideas.
“Morality binds and blinds.”
~ Jon Haidt, The Righteous Mind
How honest are you?
I like to think I’m honest. But when it comes to people who see the world differently than me, it can be hard. To look at the world through their eyes. And not distort it.
Consider the social media storm surrounding Joe Rogan. He’s a popular podcaster who signed a $100 million deal with Spotify. Rogan recently made skeptical comments about Covid vaccines. This upset the rockstar Neil Young, who wants Spotify to remove his songs from their archives in protest.
Whatever you think about Joe Rogan, Neil Young, and Covid vaccines (I’m a big fan of all three!), put that aside for a moment. And notice how people have responded.
Millions online have gotten emotional. Many of them digging up dirt on both men from long ago to attack their characters. The pundit Keith Olbermann went so far as to call Rogan the dumbest person on the planet.
Let’s call this the Olbermann approach. It’s one way to respond to people who say things we disagree with. Simply attack them. Call them names. Distort or ignore the nuance of their arguments.
I’ve absolutely been guilty of this. I think back to a moment when I told a roommate he was dumb. In an angry tone. In front of his friends. I cringe reflecting on it.
Anatol Rapoport, a polymath and pioneer in game theory, described three additional approaches people take when seeking to criticize another’s views. He named them after influential psychologists:
- The Freudian: Reveal “hidden motives” behind your opponent’s thoughts. Explain them away as unconscious beliefs.
- The Pavlovian: See if you can “shape and control” the person through punishments or rewards.
- The Rogerian: Seek to “genuinely understand” their position. Be accepting rather than judgmental. Look for merit and similarities to your views.
Imagine you’re having a conversation with someone and the topic becomes controversial. You and the other person take different positions. They want to win you over to their view.
Which approach would be most effective on you?
Say they take the Freudian approach. They tell you your beliefs can be explained away by hidden motives you don’t see. Would you find that compelling?
As unsuccessful as that may be, Rapoport said the Pavlovian approach is even less persuasive. People really don’t like to have perceived opponents try to control and manipulate them.
But the Olbermann approach must be the least effective of all. Imagine the person you’re debating calls you a big dummy. Would that win you over?
Is there a single person who would be swayed by this? Why do we do it so often?
Because it feels good to be self righteous.
What about the Rogerian approach? What if the other person stopped talking and truly listened without judgment to everything you had to say? And they looked for the best parts of your ideas as well as the ways you both agree? How would that make you feel?
Among the most influential psychologists of the past century, Carl Rogers wrote:
When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you . . . without trying to mold you, it feels damn good. . . . confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.
Anatol Rapoport built on Roger’s insight. He came up with an approach for dealing with people who think differently. Known today as Rapoport’s Rules, this is how it works:
- LISTEN: Have the other person share their perspective. Allow them to fully exhale. Don’t interrupt. Give them your full attention.
- UNDERSTAND: Ask clarifying questions. Seek to genuinely understand what they think.
- RESTATE: Use your own words to describe their position. Do it so well they say “that’s right!” Or even better, “I wish I said it that clearly.”
- AGREE: Let them know anything from their position you agree with.
- LEARN: Clarify anything they said you didn’t know. Tell them what they taught you.
Only after following this process are you permitted to state your disagreements. Ideally they ask you to share them. Focus on respectfully refuting their central point rather than attacking them personally or using emotionally charged criticisms.
Rapoport’s Rules help you to come across as a friend rather than an enemy. An honest adult rather than a petulant child. People are far more likely to listen to you in return and consider your ideas.
The philosopher Dan Dennett explains in his fantastic book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking how he does his best to apply Rapoport’s Rules. He treasures the response he got from a philosopher who he “profoundly” disagrees with. Dennett explained both their views in an earlier book and received this response:
The treatment of my view is extensive and generally fair, far more so than one usually gets from critics. You convey the complexity of my view and the seriousness of my efforts . . . I am grateful.
Imagine if Keith Olbermann took this approach instead. As an influential pundit, what if he interviewed Joe Rogan and fully applied Rapoport’s Rules? Then did the same with Neil Young. And a highly regarded vaccine scientist.
Imagine if we all took this path. How different our public discourse would be! And how quickly good ideas would spread and build.
The best path forward is not always the most paved. The Olbermann approach is easy. Self righteousness requires no effort.
By contrast, Rapoport’s Rules are hard.
They’re also ethical. And effective.
Rise above self righteousness. Seek to understand and learn from people who are different.
Someone will soon express an idea you find disagreeable. Take a moment to apply Rapoport’s Rules:
Don’t share your opposing view unless they ask for it. If they do, focus solely on refuting their central point.
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