You know how these conversations go: “I’m right.” “No, I’m right!” By the time we’re adults, most of us have learned from experience that discussions like this rarely get us anywhere useful. Yet, we may still find ourselves clinging stubbornly to our polarizing positions now and then, particularly when “winning the debate” seems like the only way to get our point across – and to show others just how right we are.
Sure, we might feel a certain amount of satisfaction from getting our way, or from at least having the last word. But too often – whether in a spousal conflict or a professional negotiation – a tendency to “make others wrong” creates distance and distrust on all sides. As a result, everybody loses.
Over time, the need to always prevail (combined with the tendency to close ourselves off to the merits of other people’s points of view) can erode our relationships, stunt our personal growth and diminish our quality of life. Still, most of us think and believe what we do for a reason; we don’t want to just cave in or remain silent on topics that mean a great deal to us. Besides, spirited debates (when conducted respectively) can bring about greater understanding for everyone.
So is it possible to become more skilled at hearing and fully processing other points of view – without simply abandoning (or pretending to abandon) our own thoughts and feelings? Absolutely, say the experts. All it takes is a healthy dose of self-awareness combined with some higher-level communication techniques.
Adopting more balanced, respectful and mindful ways of interacting will help you become less dogmatic and more open to other points of view, says Heidi Burgess, PhD, codirector of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It will also help you become a more effective, well-informed and approachable communicator, which may ultimately render you more persuasive in the long run.
“The more open-minded you are, the more friends you’ll win,” Burgess says, “and the more dynamic your intellectual life will become.”
Understanding Hostile Talk
The first step toward genuine open-mindedness is understanding why closed-minded talk can be so attractive in the moment, but so unhealthy in the long run. Suzette Haden Elgin, PhD, linguist and author of How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Getting Your Point Across With the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), says that combative, oppositional interactions can give some people an adrenaline rush and provide them with emotional thrills as well as a sense of power, superiority and purpose.
But hostile talk also tends to corrode our connection with others. This can hurt us both in professional and personal spheres far more than we might realize.
Get a reputation as someone who stubbornly hammers home positions or who is unwilling to hear others out, and people may avoid engaging you in deep or meaningful conversations. They may also avoid revealing what they really think and feel, says Marilee Adams, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 7 Powerful Tools for Life and Work (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). Ultimately, she warns, “People will not be willing to be open and vulnerable around you.”
Using language as a weapon can even tear down physical health. Research in the past decade at Ohio State University in Columbus correlated argumentative relationships between newlyweds to a weakening of the immune system. In May 2004, the Harvard Men’s Health Watch newsletter reported a connection between hostile married couples and a thickening of the left ventricle of the heart.
Fortunately, you can turn your hostile habits around by developing three essential skills: 1) Learn to listen; 2) learn to express yourself in a constructive, respectful manner; and 3) be willing to challenge and expand what you know by considering new information and viewpoints.
Developing and exercising these skills will help you see the world less as a dual universe – with “right” and “true” on one side, and “wrong” and “false” on the other – and more as a complex crystal composed of many facets and potential lenses.
To get started, see the tips in “Open Season” at right. Keep in mind that as you work toward having healthier, more balanced interactions, you may still feel your old one-sided patterns and reactions rising up. Just strive to be aware of when you feel compelled to force-feed your opinions to others – and of the results you’re getting. Adams suggests keeping a journal to record any rough patches and to get a sense of what triggers you to slip into the right-versus-wrong mentality.
Another tool is QuestionThinking, Adams’s method-ology for asking “Learner” questions that reliably lead to discovery and understanding, as opposed to “Judger” questions, which tend to lead to blame and regret. (For more on QuestionThinking, check out “Lines of Inquiry” in our December 2004 archives.)
Adams strongly advises practicing your new techniques in some low-intensity situations before trying them out in emotionally charged ones: “It’s difficult to change behaviors as it is,” she says, “and it’s virtually impossible to pull out a new behavior when you’re under stress.”
As you let go of your rigid talking points, you may find that your opinions mature and become more complex. But there is one thing you won’t find, says Adams: that becoming a more open-minded and receptive person has turned you into a passive doormat.
“It’s not that you have become all soft and gooey,” she says. “It’s just that you have begun to really see other people as people, and not as opponents or objects.” And you will feel happier and healthier for your effort.
Alyssa Ford is a writer and editor in St. Paul, Minn.