[Epistemic status: This is a strategy that I know works well from my own experience, but also depends on some prereqs.
I guess this is a draft for my Double Crux Facilitation sequence.]
Followup to: Something simple to try in conversations
Related to: Politics is the Mind Killer, Against Disclaimers
Here’s a simple model that is extremely important to making difficult conversations go well:
Sometimes, when a person is participating in a conversation, or an argument, he or she will be holding onto a “point”, that he/she wants to convey.
- A group is deciding which kind of air conditioner to get, and you understand that one brand is much more efficient than the others, for the same price.
- You’re listening to a discussion between two intellectuals who you can tell are talking past eachother, and you have the perfect metaphor that will clarify things for both of them.
- Your startup is deciding how to respond to an embarrassing product failure, one of the cofounders wants to release a statement that you think will be off-putting to many of your customers.
As a rule, when a person is “holding onto” a point that they want to make, they are unable to listen well.
The point that a person wants to make relates to something that’s important to them. If it seems that their conversational-partners are not going to understand or incorporate that point, that important value is likely going to be lost. Reasonably, this entails a kind of anxiety.
So, to the extent that it seems to you that your point won’t be heard or incorporated, you’ll agitatedly push for airtime, at the expense of good listening. Which, unfortunately, results in a coordination problem of each person pushing to get their point heard and no one listening. Which, of course, makes it more likely that any given point won’t be heard, triggering a positive feedback loop.
In general, this means that conversations are harder to the degree that…
- The topic matters to the participants.
- The participant’s visceral expectation is that they won’t be heard.
(Which is a large part of the reason why difficult conversations get harder as the number of participants increases. More people means more points competing to be heard, which exacerbates the death spiral.)
I think this goes a long way towards explicating why politics is a mind killer. Political discourse is a domain which…
- Matters personally to many participants, and
- Includes a vast number of “conversational participants”,
- Who might take unilateral action, on the basis of whatever arguments they hear, good or bad.
Given that setup, it is quite reasonable to treat arguments as soldiers. When one sees someone supporting, or even appearing to support a policy or ideology that you consider abhorrent or dangerous, there is a natural and reasonable anxiety that the value you’re protecting will be lost. And there is a natural (if usually poorly executed) desire to correct the misconception in the common knowledge before it gets away from you. Or failing that, to tear down the offending argument / discredit the person making it.
(To see an example of the thing that one is viscerally fearing, see the history of Eric Drexler’s promotion of nanotechnology. Drexler made arguments about Nanotech, which he hoped would direct resources in such a way that the future could be made much better. His opponents attacked strawmen of those arguments. The conversation “got away” from Drexler, and the whole audience discounted the ideas he supported, thus preventing any progress towards the potential future that Drexler was hoping to help bring into being.
I think the visceral fear of something like this happening to you is what motivates “treating arguments as soldiers“)
Given this, one of the main thing that needs to happen to make a conversation go well, is for each participant to (epistemically!) aleive that their point will be gotten to and heard. Otherwise, they can’t be expected to put it aside (even for a moment) in order to listen carefully to their interlocutor (because doing so would increase the risk of their point in fact not being heard).
When I’m mediating conversations, one strategy that I employ to facilitate this is to use my role as the facilitator to “hold” the points of both sides. That is (sometimes before the participants even start talking to each-other), I’ll first have each one (one at a time) convey their point to me. And I don’t go on until I can pass the ITT of that person’s point, to their (and my) satisfaction.
Usually, when I’m able to pass the ITT, there’s a sense of relief from that participant. They now know that I understand their point, so whatever happens in the conversation, it won’t get lost or neglected. Now, they can relax and focus on understanding what the other person has to say.
Of course, with sufficient skill, one of the participants can put aside their point (before it’s been heard by anyone) in order to listen. But that is often asking too much of your interlocutors, because doing the “putting aside” motion, even for a moment is hard, especially when what’s at stake is important. (I can’t always do it.)
Outsourcing the this step to the facilitator, is much easier, because the facilitator has less that is viscerally at stake for them (and has more metacognition to track the meta-level of the conversation).
I’m curious if this is new to folks or not. Give me feedback.