“Yoda Figurine,” by Kate Haskell, licensed under CC BY 2.0
By Heidi Meyer, DCI Fellow
Times have changed since Yoda said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” Nowadays it seems most people speak in absolutes. Walking around campus, which is supposed to be an incubator of thought-provoking and open-minded discussions, I frequently hear statements such as “Ew, they’re a Republican,” or “I don’t want to talk to a crazy liberal,” or “I hate talking about politics.”
None of these mindsets are productive. Making assumptions about someone’s beliefs or characters based on a broad label, or completely shunning a topic due to its potential to stir up emotions and controversy makes us as individuals and as a society more polarized and less suited to deal with the increasing number of serious problems we face.
We, therefore, need to change the negative connotations around confrontation. Instead of fearing that if two people disagree on a topic, chaos will ensue, we need to practice leaning into disagreements and intentionally practicing having discussions and deliberations on sensitive topics. Confrontation is something that does not have to divide individuals, but instead can be a productive tool to help people come together.
I’ve always had an affinity for confrontation, stemming from my experiences with debate in high school, which showed me how productive confrontation can be in helping individuals grow and communicate effectively and respectfully. Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned.
1) Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.
In the type of debate I did, participants would not know what side they would be arguing for until a coin flip at the start of each round. This meant that participants had to prepare arguments for both sides, which provided an important framework that there was no side with no good arguments defending it. Both sides had logical reasons for their stance, and it was up to each side to best articulate those reasons and weigh them against the other. This format forced participants to be open-minded enough to put themselves in the shoes of each side and try to understand the reasons behind those stances.
2) Each side must actively listen to the other in order to respond effectively.
To be successful in debate, one couldn’t ignore the other side, walk away, or make rude faces or comments. This is also true when trying to make important progress in life. Shutting out the other side without listening or trying to understand where they are coming from is not productive. When people feel attacked, it makes them defensive and less likely to compromise, halting progress.
3) Asking questions is an effective way to make a point
In debate, there were specific sections of each round designated for asking questions. Through this structure, I learned that questions are useful in pointing out flaws in the logic of an argument without making the other side defensive. Questions can disarm people and force them to evaluate the reasoning behind their stances, making them more open to changing their minds if they cannot come up with an effective answer to the question.
4) Be respectful
To make a question or any other type of point more effective, a respectful and inquisitive, rather than aggressive, tone is essential. A big part of debate was about presentation and those who were rude or aggressive tended to distract from their arguments, while those who were respectful and more diplomatic tended to deliver their arguments in a more convincing manner.
All of these lessons apply far beyond the context of debate and are important for productive deliberations. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong said, “We cannot address a problem if we cannot talk about it,” and I think these lessons are a great place to start the conversation.