The most common thing I hear whenever I’m in a back-and-forth debate/argument with someone (always in person; I don’t do much internet debate): “you’re not listening.”
Maybe, I’m just a terrible listener who loves the sound of his own voice. I allow space for that possibility.
Or, “you’re not listening to me” is the go-to escape clause people use when they fail to convert my opinion to be closer to their opinion.
Notice that you never hear BOTH people in a disagreement accusing each other of not listening. It’s usually just one person. Which means either they’re right — someone indeed is not listening — or they’re miffed that the accuser’s perspective, clearly perfect and unchallengeable, hasn’t been adopted.
I’m listening fully (or at least I think I am). I never, even in the midst of a heated disagreement, tell anyone that they’re not listening to me. The reason I don’t need that is this: I don’t engage with you expecting to change your opinion. I’m there to exchange opinions.
So if we talk for 20 minutes and you still feel how you felt at first, I’m OK with that!
When I challenge someone verbally, I’m not trying to “win” by changing your mind or beating you down with my perspective. I challenge you to see how strong your position is. I want to know how much you actually believe what you say, and if there’s any substance behind it (and if so, how much).
What I often find is there’s not much “meat on the bone” — which disappoints me. A substantial defense of a dissenting point of view is a great way for me to learn from someone. I can’t learn from you if you can’t substantially defend your own opinion.
If there’s substance behind a person’s point, they’ll stand on it and defend it. If there’s no substance, I’ll hear the same general bullet points as everyone else who has that same opinion. And, they grow frustrated when they fail to covert you.
I’ll still engage with this person, but the outcome is predictable: when I get to the root of their POV and challenge it clearly, they start pleading no contest (i.e., changing the subject or going back to their original point while ignoring the direct question). Eventually the claim that I’m not listening comes out.
Some people think the point of debate is to get the other person to change how they think. That is never my goal; that’s a mission impossible anyway. Have you ever changed someone’s mind by arguing with them or telling them why they’re wrong?
I just want to find out how you came to think how you think and why. I want to know if your opinions are actually yours, or someone else’s. I want to see if you can acknowledge a solid point made in opposition to yours (very rare). I’m fine with you thinking differently.
I never tell anyone that they’re not listening to me, because I know how to make my point. I know they heard me. If I’m in a debate, the best way to KNOW they’re listening is when the cognitive dissonance kicks in: I make a point that the other person can’t counter, and after a brief pause to think, they change the subject.
I’ve seen it too many times.
Anyway, here’s a strategy to “win” an argument (if that’s your thing) AND kill the “you’re not listening” cop-out at the same time: the steel man argument.
First, the WRONG way to go about things…
Straw Man Argument: a form of argument and an informal fallacy of having the impression of refuting an argument, meanwhile the proper idea of argument under discussion was not addressed or properly refuted.
You’ve probably heard of the straw man (or had it used against you). I have.
For a recent example, I said, “I don’t care that much about who wins the election. Since either candidate could win, it would be better to place our bets on our own actions, over which we have much more control.”
Straw man response: “So you don’t care about racism, Black people being killed by police, the country going to war, or women being raped??!! Is THAT what you’re saying???!! Are you SERIOUS!!!???”
Now, a better alternative…
Steel Man Argument: the exact opposite of the straw man argument. The idea is to find the best form of the opponent’s argument to test opposing opinions. An improved form of the other person’s views-one that’s harder to defeat.
The steel man is the opposite: instead of bastardizing or absurd-absoluting (taking what they said to the extreme to make it sound ridiculous — see the straw man example above) someone’s point, do the opposite. Make the argument FOR them, BETTER than they have.
Example: “I get it. Self-determinism and paying attention to our own actions has a much more immediate and lasting effect on a person and their family than anything the government does. It’s not that the government doesn’t matter — but who’s ever succeeded by depending on the government, anyway? If everyone gets their own shit together, then everyone not only does better — but they have more personal control over their lives. I understand you! No one can argue with that.”
See the difference? Would someone who’s heard that, ever say they weren’t being listened to?
When the straw man is used against me, I immediately know what kind of thinking I’m dealing with in the other person. When the steel man is used… Well, honestly, no one has EVER used the steel man on me.
Steel manning requires MUCH more empathy and listening than the straw man.
You prove that you get their point, and they can’t say they weren’t being listened to or that they were misunderstood. To do any of this, you have to actually BE listening.
Next time you’re in a conversation-turning-argument, do the following: take a deep breath and tell your counterpart that you’re going to summarize the key points of their perspective. Then explain their points more articulately than they have, fleshing out the gaps in their argument.
Then, ask them if you have displayed a clear understanding of where they’re coming from. If you do this correctly, you’ll get a “yes” and nothing else.
Now, here’s the kicker: ask them to do the same for you. Use the Law of Reciprocity against them.
If they’re anything like the average person I’ve had accuse me of not listening, they will be unable to do so.
You’ll never have this person accuse you of not listening, ever again.
If you can’t steel man someone’s argument, you haven’t yet earned the right — via listening and empathy — to disagree.
If you’re ready to step into this new being — a learnable discipline — joins us at Work On Your Game University where you’ll get the Work On Your Game System and learn how to implement all of what you’ve just learned.
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