5 Steps to a Truly Open-Minded Debate
Two heads are better than one, goes the old saying, but in order for that to be true, you need to actually listen to what the other head in the room is saying.
And let's be honest, that's sometimes easier said than done. We all know conflict can be constructive. It spurs creativity, compels us to vet ideas, and ensures multiple perspectives are considered before a fateful decision is made. But when you're actually face to face with someone who has a viewpoint significantly different from your own, taking in what that person is saying can sometimes be hard.
We're human and we tend to get defensive, dig ourselves a foxhole, shield our wounded pride, and lob out verbal hand grenades. It's OK to admit it--we've all been there a few times.
Psychology can help. In Psychology Today, Jim Stone, Ph.D, recently offered a five-step process to help all parties keep an open mind and reap the rewards of constructive debate whether you're speaking with that wacky Republican (or Democrat) next door, dealing with the inscrutable demands of that guy from IT, or trying to get five managers to agree on a single strategic vision. Here are the basics.
Establish Your Common Humanity
No matter how different you might be from your conversational partner, you have at least one thing in common--your species--and that's really a lot. "By default we tend to see a person who has different views as an opponent. And we fall into a 'debate' frame with them," writes Stone. Instead, try to establish what communication experts call a "dialogue" frame that "highlights the similarities we have with our discussion partner."
Start With Stories, Not Reasons
How do you actually accomplish Step 1? Hold off on the intellectual stuff for awhile and try to get at the human roots of others' perspectives. Stone suggests asking something like "how did you come to have your current views on this subject? I'm not asking for your reasons (we'll get to those). I'm interested in your story." He continues: "As the other person talks, I try to imagine what it might have been like to be in their shoes…I try to understand why it makes sense for them to see things the way they do."
Create a Safe Environment to Change Your Mind
How often have you truly changed your mind under threat? The answer is probably pretty close to never. People need to feel safe in order to evolve their thinking. "If you want the other person to open their mind, you have to make them feel safe doing so. And the best way to do that, in my experience, is to secure permission for both of you to take things back," says Stone, who suggests explicitly saying something along these lines:
"Have you ever been in a discussion, defending a point, and suddenly realized you didn't have much confidence in your own argument? But you kept arguing anyway, because you didn't want to lose the debate? I want to avoid that if I can. If we're going to talk about this issue further, I want to feel free to take things back if they don't hold up. And, of course, I'll give you permission to do that, too."
Validate Their Experience, Question Their Interpretation
There's no more surefire way to annoy people than to doubt the reality of their experiences or question whether they really feel how they say they feel. Avoid that at all costs, suggests Stone. Instead, focus on whether their interpretation of that experience is correct or if there's a more useful way to view what happened.
Keep Focused on Your Goal
What's the goal of this conversation? Never lose sight of the answer to this question. "What do I want from the conversation? I want to create a bridge of understanding between us. I want us both to walk away with a better understanding of the larger issue at stake. I want us to create the basis for further dialogue. I want to change their mind perhaps just a little bit. And I'm willing to learn new things as well," writes Stone. "I sincerely want those things. Or at least part of me does. But there's another, darker, more impulsive part of me that wants…the momentary pleasure of a quick dig or verbal smack-down…And that's why I have to remind myself, whenever there's tension, to stay focused on the goal."
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.