Right & Wrong


A hypothetical conversation with a hypothetical friend about a controversial topic…

Me: “If you believed CONTROVERSIAL POSITION(*), then you would have no other choice but to believe CONTROVERSIAL RESULT.”

Friend: “No I don’t. CONTROVERSIAL POSITION is wrong.”

Me: “That’s not the point. I’m not trying to debate CONTROVERSIAL POSITION, I’m trying to point out the mindset of the people that disagree with you.”

Friend: “It’s simple: they’re wrong.”

Me: “That may or may not be, but that doesn’t help understanding where they’re coming from.”

Friend: “I don’t need to understand, they’re just wrong.”

Me: “That approach will never lead anywhere but unresolvable arguments and divisiveness. If we want to have rational discussions about change and making the world a better place we have to understand the other side’s point of view.”

Friend: “Oh, I understand … that their point of view is wrong.”

Me: “That doesn’t help. It doesn’t help explain why they do what they do, it doesn’t help explain why they believe what they believe, and most important of all, it completely prevents you from having a dialog with them in any way shape or form.”

Friend: “I don’t want to have a dialog with them. They’re wrong. They need to be corrected.”

Me: “And how do you ‘correct’ them without being willing to talk to them?”

Friend: “I am willing to talk to them.”

Me: “They sure won’t see it that way. All you want to do is beat them over the head with the fact that you think they’re wrong. You’re willing to talk at them. Imagine if someone came to you and said ‘you’re wrong’ about something, without even listening to what you had to say? Would you be open to any kind of a conversation? Would you be willing to ‘be corrected’ by them? Of course not!”

Friend: “But I don’t need to be corrected by them. I’m right. No correction needed. If anything, they’re wrong and need to be corrected.”

Me: “They sure won’t feel that way. Just as you’ld resist every attempt to ‘be corrected’, and probably angrily so, so would they. Stalemate. Or worse: a widening of the gulf that separates you. Nobody changes, nobody who’s ‘wrong’ gets ‘corrected’, everyone just walks away angrier.”

Me: “So, how would you go about convincing someone who won’t listen that they’re wrong?”

Friend: “Facts.”

Me: “But they don’t agree that your facts are facts at all. In fact, not only do they think that your so-called fact is a matter of opinion, they think you’re wrong.”

Friend: “But they’re wrong.”

Me: “Great. So how do you ‘prove’ that? Especially when they won’t listen to your so-called ‘facts’?”

Friend: “I guess I’d build an argument for the truth, point by point, in a way that they couldn’t see it any other way except for being true.”

Me: “You’ll fail. Remember, they simply don’t believe your facts are facts at all. They believe you’re wrong, and each point you might make will get dismissed as irrelevant, inconsequential, or just plain wrong. Besides, just like you, they have no interest in understanding why you think you’re right, especially not point-by-point. They know they’re right, and will defend their position to the death.”

Friend: “So there’s no way to convince them?”

Me: “I didn’t say that. What I said was that simply beating them over the head with your so-called facts and truth will get you nowhere. In fact, it’ll likely only make matters worse as they dig in their heels.”

Friend: “Fine. What’s your approach? How would you convince them, then? How would you show them that you’re right?”

Me: “You won’t like it. In fact, you’ve already said you have no interest in it.”

Friend: “So, what is it?”

Me: “Understand their position. Understand it so well that you could argue their case for them.”

Friend: “But THEY’RE WRONG!”

Me: “I didn’t say believe their position, I said understand it. This is probably the biggest obstacle of all. For some reason you’re confusing understanding something with agreeing with it. I’m not saying that at all. Understanding something is … understanding it, nothing more. If anything, the better you understand the opposite position the more evidence you’ll have for your own position being right, right? You’ll have all these wonderful ways, then, to refute their arguments and show them just how wrong they are.”

Friend: “I suppose. But they’re wrong. Why should I have to go through all this work to prove to them that they’re wrong? I don’t want to understand their side, I just want them to understand the truth.”

Me: “Because it’s how you get them to listen to you. Rather than whacking away at how right you are, point-by-point even, you show instead that you clearly understand where they’re coming from. Once they understand that you understand their position, they’ll be much more open to having a dialog about it.”

Friend: “But I don’t want a dialog. I want them to change their mind.”

Me: “I can’t guarantee that they will, but like I said, slapping them around with your truth and facts certainly won’t do it. It’ll just make things worse by closing doors — hard. Showing them that you at least understand why they believe what they believe gives you a chance. And, yeah, if you really want them to change their mind the only way to do so will be with a respectful discussion based on understanding each others positions. The only way to get someone to listen to your position is to show you understand theirs.”

Friend: “What a pain in the ass. The truth should just be … the truth! It’s obvious!”

Me: “It’s not, and you know it. That’s what respectful discussion is all about. You learn about each other, and each others beliefs, so that the next time they (or you) do something that “makes no sense”, you (or they) can at least understand how it might make sense to someone who believes (or doesn’t) CONTROVERSIAL POSITION.”

Friend: “Like I said, what a pain in the ass. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Me: “Sorry, man. Adulting is hard.”

Friend: “Grumble.”

Me: “There’s one more thing.”

Friend: “Whut…”

Me: “There’s one more really important part of understanding the opposition. Now, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but… as you learn why they believe what they believe, and their so-called facts and opinions behind those beliefs, you’ll simply know more. Before: You know they’re wrong. After: You know they’re wrong, AND you know why they came to their (erroneous) conclusion.”

Friend: “Yeah, so?”

Me: “Well, with all that additional knowledge you might find come to an interesting conclusion.”

Friend: “Yeah…… so……????”

Me: “You might decide…”

Friend: “Yeah…???”

Me: “You might decide they were right all along. You might decide that you were wrong.”

Friend: “NOOOOOOOO!”

Me: “Walking in with an open mind — even to that possibility — is probably the best way to show them that you’re willing to listen, which in turn is one of the best ways to open their minds as well.”

Friend: “Not gonna happen. They’re wrong. I’m right. End of discussion.”

Me: “Indeed. Literally, figuratively, and about every other way. Nothing will change.”

Me & Friend: “SIGH”

(*) While “we” were discussing something specific, feel free to pick your favorite controversial topic and position.

2 thoughts on “Right & Wrong”

  1. Oh, boy, is this timely! People who have been long-time friends are hurting and even losing each other over “controversial positions” all day long, especially on social media! One way to avoid this is to agree to disagree, and not discuss it–to say nothing, even when provoked. But that’s only a half-solution. Do I understand why good friends think they are right and I am wrong? I have an opinion, just as they have an opinion about my reasons for thinking the way I do. But we don’t want to understand each others’ motives because feeling the way they do would be too repugnant to me and vice versa! In the end, it is an emotional problem ego problem.

  2. I suspect that while we are respectfully listening, some emotional and physiological changes occur, to speakers and listeners, and both sides might be willing to listen even more. But someone has to be the first to listen and acknowledge that there is something “on the other side” to listen to. Listeners have to admit that they do not own 100% of the truth.

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