The technology investor Paul Graham once observed that the internet is disputatious by design. Give people a return channel on your opinion and they will inevitably use it to disagree, since — let’s face it — we get a bigger kick out of disagreement than agreement.
So we should. The world would be very boring if all everyone said was “good point” every time you post a hot take. Being agreed with makes nobody think harder about their own beliefs. Too much agreement creates the false impression that everyone thinks the same way you do.
In theory, then, the open nature of social media should make us all smarter and more empathetic. This was certainly the vision of its founders. In 2010, Time Magazine, announcing that Mark Zuckerberg was its Person of the Year, described Facebook’s mission as to “tame the howling mob”. In 2013, Twitter’s then-CEO proposed a vision of the company as a global Agora — the marketplace in ancient Athens where citizens met to exchange news, share views, and argue.
Eight years later, this vision strikes us as horribly naïve. Twitter is not a place renowned for the quality of its Socratic dialogues. It can sometimes seem like a vast machine for the production of anger, lies, and abuse. Howling mobs roam daily across Facebook, and occasionally wash up at the Capitol.
As a forum for argument and debate, social media seems designed to amplify our worst instincts rather than our best ones. Mild disagreements over even trivial matters have a habit of becoming unpleasant quickly. Somebody feels condescended to, somebody deploys a note of sarcasm, and a grim downward spiral of acrimony begins.
On the internet we can get the sugar rush of affirmation without the fiber of self-questioning, and become ever more certain that we are right, and they are stupid or malicious. Rather than becoming deeper and more nuanced, our opinions get flattened into flags of allegiance.
And yet I haven’t given up on social media as a place for discussion and debate. I use Twitter a lot, and while I do get stuck in pointless rows, I also use it to sharpen my thinking by engaging with people who think I’m wrong. It’s not easy, but it’s possible if you know how to disagree well.
In the course of writing my new book about interpersonal conflict, I came to think of disagreement as a skill that must be learnt and refined. It’s not one that we’re born with, and we never get trained in it, but it’s essential to acquire if we’re going to make progress, as individuals and as a species. Used in the right way, social media offers us the perfect place to practice productive disagreement.
I talked to psychologists and to practitioners of tough, often adversarial conversations: interrogators, hostage negotiators, addiction therapists — professionals highly skilled at turning the heat of conflict into light. Here’s some of what I learned.
1. Let go of your first position.
In a productive disagreement, you must be willing to change your mind, even as you’re trying to change the other’s mind. That means being aware of our own bad instincts in argument. For instance, most of us have a tendency to stick to our first position come hell or high water, even when we can see it needs modifying. Since at an evolutionary level we associate disagreement with a fight, we feel as if moving from our first position in an argument is an embarrassment or humiliation. In the public arena of social media, that feeling is particularly acute.
But when both of you stick to your first position, no progress can get made. The disagreement just becomes a boring game of tennis, predictable shots flying back and forth. By moving from your own, if only slightly, you’re showing a willingness to be flexible which the other person might just pick up on. You’re also showing that changing one’s mind is nothing to be embarrassed about — quite the opposite. Losing arguments is a democratic art.
2. Stop trying to be right.
One of the ways arguments become futile is that one person seeks to correct another, and the second person reacts badly. “No, you’re wrong about this,” can be deadly to a dialogue. It seems odd to shy away from statements like that in a disagreement, but the truth is that this kind of blunt, head-on approach triggers a threat reflex in the other person, which means they raise defenses and dig into their first position. Psychologists call it “reactance” — the tendency of people who feel pushed around to focus on the power struggle at the expense of other goals. Expert interrogators know to try and avoid creating reactance, which is why, counter-intuitively, they rarely ask suspects to tell them anything. The key in any tense conversation is to get the other to lower their shield, and you don’t do that by pushing them. Tell them you think they might be right, emphasize where you agree, or find some point of connection — anything that makes them feel less defensive. Instead of applying pressure on ‘them’, the key is to make it easier for them to move your way.
3. Give face.
In any social interaction, each person wants to project a desired impression of themselves. In a disagreement we want our interlocutor, and anyone watching, to think of us as intelligent, wise, morally sound. Under pressure, each participant puts in a lot of effort to do this. The sociologist Erving Goffman called this “facework”. When someone is focused on their own image, that can get in the way of a reasoned exchange.
One solution to this is “give face” – to do the other’s facework for them. When hostage negotiators pick up the phone they know they’re dealing with someone who feels under immense pressure and may act irrationally as a result. So they are trained not to get to the substance of a negotiation until they’ve made the hostage-taker feel good about themselves. “I can see you’re handling this situation really calmly, I appreciate that.” Giving your interlocutor some credit for their question or point helps them consider whether or not they’re wrong.
4. Follow the rule of three.
One of the most successful experiments in disagreement of recent years is the Change My View forum on reddit. It was founded by a young Scot called Kal Turnbull a few years ago and now has close to a million participants. Turnbull was wondering how to encounter people with different views from his own, so that he could test his own beliefs about the world. When he looked at social media, he saw a lot of heat and not much light. So he decided to design his own space for productive disagreements.
On Change My View (CMV) participants come with a point of view and invite people to challenge it. Instead of rebutting the challenges, they’re encouraged to consider them and to reward anyone who succeeds in changing their mind. Social scientists now use CMV as a data source for the study of debate and persuasion. One of the things they’ve found is that if a disagreement isn’t going to go well after three exchanges, it’s never going to go well. This is a finding that I try and remember on Twitter and elsewhere. If, after three back-and-forths, I feel like my interlocutor and I are going to make no progress on this point, I know it’s time to make a polite exit.
5. Resist negative reciprocation.
Humans have an innate and powerful tendency to copy each other. From their very first months, babies try to imitate their parents’ facial expressions. As adults, we take cues on how to behave from those around us — if people are being quiet and respectful, you tend to be too, if everyone’s letting rip, so do you. The same applies to argument. When someone says snide or insulting to you, you will feel a powerful automatic tendency to respond in kind. Now, maybe that’s the right thing to do – maybe they deserve it. But maybe it was just a flash of temper and you can get the conversation back on the rails by not reciprocating. Either way, make sure it’s your choice.
6. Seek out good disagreers.
I’ve often heard it said that we should try and expose our minds to those who have very different beliefs and worldviews to us. Otherwise, particularly in the age of social media, we can get stuck in bubbles. I agree with this but only up to a point. If I come across someone with very different beliefs and they are disrespectful and arrogant, I’m more likely to dismiss their worldview too. So the key to this is to seek out people from ‘the other side’ whom you like and respect, and with whom you can disagree without falling out. When you find them, cherish them.
7. Don’t just correct – create.
A good disagreement should not be a zero sum game in which one person wins and the other loses. Nor need it just end in compromise with both participants getting half of what they want. The best outcome of a disagreement is when two different opinions collide, fuse and create something new and better between them. Then everyone wins.
Ian Leslie is a journalist, podcast host, and author of acclaimed books on human behavior. His latest, Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes, is out now.